Offworld Colonies of the Canadian North

[Image: Fermont’s weather-controlling residential super-wall, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

An earlier version of this post was published on New Scientist back in 2015.

Speaking at a symposium on Arctic urbanism, held at the end of January 2015 in Tromsø, Norway, architectural historian Alessandra Ponte introduced her audience to some of Canada’s most remote northern mining towns.

Ponte had recently taken a group of students on a research trip through the boreal landscape, hoping to understand the types of settlements that had been popping up with increasing frequency there. This included a visit to the mining village of Fermont, Quebec.

Designed by architects Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers, Fermont features a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket, and even a tourism bureau—for all that, however, it is run entirely by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means that there are no police, who would be funded by the Canadian government; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.

The town is also home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather.

[Image: Wind-shadow studies, Fermont; courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Known as the mur-écran or “windscreen,” the structure is nearly a mile in length and shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, a fortification against the sky built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.

In any other scenario, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But extreme environments such as those found in the far north are, by necessity, laboratories of architectural innovation, requiring the invention of new, often quite radical, context-appropriate building types.

In Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city—and has been since the 1970s.

[Image: Fermont and its iron mine, as seen on Google Maps].

Offworld boom towns

In a 2014 interview with Aeon, entrepreneur Elon Musk argued for the need to establish human settlements on other planets, beginning with a collection of small cities on Mars. Musk, however, infused this vision with a strong sense of moral obligation, urging us all “to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization.”

Humans must go to Mars, he implored the Royal Aeronautical Society back in 2012. Once there, he proposed, we can finally “start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big”—where really big, for Musk, means establishing a network of towns and villages. Cities.

Of course, Musk is not talking about building a Martian version of London or Paris—at least, not yet. Rather, these sorts of remote, privately operated industrial activities require housing and administrative structures, not parks and museums; security teams, not mayors.

These roughshod “man camps,” as they are anachronistically known, are simply “cobbled together in a hurry,” energy reporter Russell Gold writes in his book The Boom. Man camps, Gold continues, are “sprawling complexes of connected modular buildings,” unlikely to be mistaken for a real town or civic center.

In a sense, then, we are already experimenting with offworld colonization—but we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north. Our Martian future is already under construction here on Earth.

[Image: Fermont apartments, design sketch, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Just-in-time urbanism

Industrial settlements such as Russell Gold’s fracking camps in the American West or those in the Canadian North are most often run by subsidiary services corporations, such as Baker Hughes, Oilfield Lodging, Target Logistics, or the aptly named Civeo.

The last of these—whose very name implies civics reduced to the catchiness of an IPO—actually lists “villages” as one of its primary spatial products. These are sold as “integrated accommodation solutions” that you can order wholesale, like a piece of flatpak furniture, an entire pop-up city given its own tracking number and delivery time.

Civeo, in fact, recently survived a period of hedge-fund-induced economic turbulence—but this experience also serves as a useful indicator for how the private cities of the future might be funded. It is not through taxation or local civic participation, in other words: their fate will instead be determined by distant economic managers who might cancel their investment at a moment’s notice.

A dystopian scenario in which an entire Arctic—or, in the future, Martian—city might be abandoned and shut down overnight for lack of sufficient economic returns is not altogether implausible. It is urbanism by stock price and spreadsheet.

[Image: Constructing Fermont, courtesy Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art, McGill University].

Consider the case of Gagnon, Quebec. In 1985, Alessandra Ponte explained, the town of Gagnon ceased to exist. Each building was taken apart down to its foundations and hauled away to be sold for scrap. Nothing was left but the ghostly, overgrown grid of Gagnon’s former streets, and even those would eventually be reabsorbed into the forest. It was as if nothing had been there at all. Creeks now flow where pick-up trucks stood thirty years ago.

In the past, abandoned cities would be allowed to molder, turning into picturesque ruins and archaeological parks, but the mining towns of the Canadian north meet an altogether different fate. Inhabited one decade and completely gone the next, these are not new Romes of the Arctic Circle, but something more like an urban mirage, an economic Fata Morgana in the ice and snow.

Martian pop-ups

Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing. We are more likely to build a second Gagnon than a new Manhattan at the foot of Olympus Mons.

Of course, instant prefab cities dropped into the middle of nowhere are a perennial fantasy of architectural futurists. One need look no further than British avant-pop provocateurs Archigram, with their candy-colored comic book drawings of “plug-in cities” sprouting amidst remote landscapes like ready-made utopias.

But there is something deeply ironic in the fact that this fantasy is now being realized by extraction firms and multinational corporations—and that this once radical vision of the urban future might very well be the perfect logistical tool that helps humankind achieve a foothold on Mars.

In other words, shuttles and spacesuits were the technologies that took us to the moon, but it will be cities that take us to new worlds. Whether or not any of us will actually want to live in a Martian Fermont is something that remains to be seen.

“The entire city can be considered as one large house”

venice[Image: “St. Mark’s Place, with campanile, Venice, Italy,” via the Library of Congress].

Following a number of recent events for A Burglar’s Guide to the City—discussing, among other things, the often less than clear legal lines between interiors and exteriors, between public space and private—I’ve been asked about the Jewish practice of the eruv.

An eruv, in very broad strokes, is a clearly defined space outside the walls of the private home, often marked by something as thin as a wire, inside of which observant Jews are permitted to carry certain items on Shabbat, a day on which carrying objects is otherwise normally prohibited.

As Chabad describes the eruv, “Practically, it is forbidden to carry something, such as a tallit bag or a prayer book from one’s home along the street and to a synagogue or to push a baby carriage from home to a synagogue, or to another home, on Shabbat.”

However, “It became obvious even in ancient times, that on Shabbat, as on other days, there are certain things people wish to carry. People also want to get together with their friends after synagogue and take things with them—including their babies. They want to get together to learn, to socialize and to be a community.”

While, today, “it is an obvious impracticality to build walls throughout portions of cities, crossing over or through streets and walkways, in order to place one’s home and synagogue within the same ‘private’ domain,” you can instead institute an eruv: staking out a kind of shared private space, or a public “interior,” as it were. The eruv, Chabad continues, is “a technical enclosure which surrounds both private and hitherto public domains,” and it “is usually large enough to include entire neighborhoods with homes, apartments and synagogues, making it possible to carry on Shabbat, since one is never leaving one’s domain.”

In fact, the space of the eruv can absorb truly huge amounts of an existing city, despite the fact that many people will not even know it exists, let alone that they have crossed over into it, that they are “inside” something.

So the question I’ve been posed—although I will defer to more learned colleagues for an informed and accurate answer—is: what does the eruv do to concepts of burglary, if everything taking place inside it, even if technically “outside,” is considered an interior private space? In other words, can any crime committed inside an eruv be considered an act of burglary?

These questions reminded me, in fact, of a commenter named Federico Sanna, who recently pointed out here on the blog that the city of Venice has instituted a new regime for public space in the city by recognizing the entirety of Venice as an eruv.

Reading this with the messy help of Google Translate, the Venetian mayor has signed a law “attesting that the entire city can be considered as one large ‘house,’” or eruv, extending domesticity to the entire metropolis. This eruv will exist for five years, after which, presumably, it will be renewed.

As Sanna points out in his comment, “It must be said: Venice is the place that invented the Ghetto. And this is the 500th anniversary of that event. Venice is the first city to ever constrain Jews in one tiny portion of its urban space–another act that generated architecture, making buildings grow higher and higher to accomodate the growing Jewish population. It is significant, then, if not altogether timely, that it’s Venice that makes this symbolic move of inclusiveness for the first time.”

What effect—if any—this might have on the legal recognition of burglary remains, for me, an interesting question.

“A City on Mars is Possible. That’s What All This is About.”

Last week’s successful demonstration of a reusable rocket, launched by Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX, “was a critical step along the way towards being able to establish a city on Mars,” Musk later remarked. The proof-of-concept flight “dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible,” he added. “That’s what all this is about.”

Previously, of course, Musk had urged the Royal Aeronautical Society to view Mars as a place where “you can start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big.” He later elaborated on these ideas in an interview with Aeon’s Ross Anderson, discussing optimistic but still purely speculative plans for “a citylike colony that he expects to be up and running by 2040.” In Musk’s own words, “If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people,” within this century.

(Image courtesy of SpaceX. Elsewhere: Off-world colonies of the Canadian Arctic and BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with novelist Kim Stanley Robinson).

Ghost Streets of Los Angeles

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

In a short story called “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville—a text often cited here on BLDGBLOG—we read about a spectral network of streets that appear and disappear around London like the static of a radio tuned between stations, old roadways that are neither here nor there, flickering on and off in the dead hours of the night.

For reasons mostly related to a bank heist described in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City, I found myself looking at a lot of aerial shots of Los Angeles—specifically the area between West Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard—when I noticed this weird diagonal line cutting through the neighborhood.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

It is not a street—although it obviously started off as a street. In fact, parts of it today are still called Marshfield Way.

At times, however, it’s just an alleyway behind other buildings, or even just a narrow parking lot tucked in at the edge of someone else’s property line.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

Other times, it actually takes on solidity and mass in the form of oddly skewed, diagonal slashes of houses.

The buildings that fill it look more like scar tissue, bubbling up to cover a void left behind by something else’s absence.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

First of all, I love the idea that the buildings seen here take their form from a lost street—that an old throughway since scrubbed from the surface of Los Angeles has reappeared in the form of contemporary architectural space.

That is, someone’s living room is actually shaped the way it is not because of something peculiar to architectural history, but because of a ghost street, or the wall of perhaps your very own bedroom takes its angle from a right of way that, for whatever reason, long ago disappeared.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

If you follow this thing from roughly the intersection of Hollywood & La Brea to the strangely cleaved back of an apartment building on Ogden Drive—the void left by this lost street, incredibly, now takes the form of a private swimming pool—these buildings seem to plow through the neighborhood like train cars.

Which could also be quite appropriate, as this superficial wound on the skin of the city is most likely a former streetcar route.

But who knows: my own research went no deeper than an abandoned Google search, and I was actually more curious what other people thought this might be or what they’ve experienced here, assuming at least someone in the world reading this post someday might live or work in one of these buildings.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

And perhaps this is just the exact same point, repeated, but the notion that every city has these deeper wounds and removals that nonetheless never disappear is just incredible to me. You cut something out—and it becomes a building a generation later. You remove an entire street—and it becomes someone’s living room.

I remember first learning that one of the auditoriums at the Barbican Art Centre in London is shaped the way it is because it was built inside a former WWII bomb crater, and simply reeling at the notion that all of these negative spaces left scattered and invisible around the city could take on architectural form.

Like ghosts appearing out of nowhere—or like China Miéville’s fluttering half-streets, conjured out of the urban injuries we all live within and too easily mistake for property lines and real estate, amidst architectural incisions that someday become swimming pools and parking lots.

*Update* Some further “ghost streets” have popped up in the comments here, and the images are worth posting.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

The one seen above, for example, is “another ghost diagonal that begins on 8th St. at Hobart, and ends at Pico and Rimpau,” an anonymous commenter explains.

Another example, seen below—

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

—is “a block in the Pico-Robertson area,” a commenter writes:

I lived there as a teenager, but never noticed the two diagonals until I looked at it with google maps. There are some lots on the west side of the next two blocks north which also have diagonals. And if you continue north across Pico Blvd, you can see diagonal property lines around St. Mary Magdalene Catholic School and the church.

Thanks for all the tips, and by all means keep them coming, if you are aware of other sites like this, whether in Los Angeles or further afield; and be sure to read through the comments for more.

*Second Update* The examples keep coming. A commenter named Lance Morris explains that he did an MFA project “about this very thing, but in Long Beach. There’s a long diagonal scar running from Long Beach Blvd and Willow all the way down to Belmont Shore. I tried walking as closely to the line as I could and GPS tracked the results. There are even 2 areas where you can still see tracks!”

This inspired me to look around the area a little bit on Google Maps, which led to another place nearby, as seen below.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

Again, seeing how these local building forms have been generated by the outlines of a missing street or streetcar line is pretty astonishing.

Further, the tiniest indicators of these lost throughways remain visible from above, usually in the form of triangular building cuts or geometrically odd storage yards and parking lots. Because they all align—like some strange industrial ley line—you can deduce that an older piece of transportation infrastructure is now missing.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view a bit larger].

Indeed, if you zoom out from there in the map, you’ll see that the subtle diagonal line cutting across the above image (from the lower left to the upper right) is, in fact, an old rail right of way that leads from the shore further inland.

To give a sense of how incredibly subtle some of these signs can be, the diagonal fence seen in the below screen grab—

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

—is actually shaped that way not because of some quirk of the local storage lot manager, but because it follows this lost right of way.

*Third Update* There are yet more interesting examples popping up now over in a thread on Metafilter.

There, among other notable comments, someone called univac points out that the streetcar scar that “begins on 8th St. at Hobart, and ends at Pico and Rimpau”—quoting an earlier commenter here on BLDGBLOG—”actually has one echo in the diagonally-stepped building here, and picks up again in the block bounded by Wilton, Westchester, 9th and San Marino, and ends at a crooked building just north of 4th and Olympic.”

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

You can see the middle stretch of that route in the image, above. For more, check out the thread on Metafilter.

Not only this, however, but the old right of way followed by that commenter actually extends much further than that, all the way southwest to a small park at approximately Pico and Queen Anne Place.

[Image: Via Google Maps; view larger].

In the above image, you can see a small structure—a garage or a house—turned slightly off-axis in the northeast corner, indicating the line of the old streetcar line, with some open lawns and small paved areas revealing its obscured geometry as you look down to the southwest.

When those who it was built for are not present

[Image: Photo by Kai Caemmerer].

I’ve got a new article up over at New Scientist looking at the so-called “ghost cities” of China, and where exactly they can be found. This is not as straightforward as it might seem:

It seems hard to lose track of an entire city. But that appears to be what’s taken place—and not just once, but over and over again. The infamous “ghost cities” of China have become a favorite internet meme of the past half-decade. These ghost cities are meant to be sprawling wastelands of empty streets and uninhabited megastructures, without a human being in sight. But for all the discussion, do these places really exist?

The rest of the piece looks at various strategies put to use not only for quantifying but for simply locating these developments in the first place. This includes data analysis and satellite photography—but, just as compellingly, on-the-ground firsthand exploration.

[Image: Photo by Kai Caemmerer].

Here, I talked to photographer Kai Caemmerer who has recently undertaken a series of photos exploring what he calls “unborn cities,” or cities not dead and expired—that is, not ghost cities—but cities that are incomplete and still awaiting their future populations.

“Unlike many Western cities that begin as small developments and grow in accordance with local industries, gathering community and history as they age,” Caemmerer explains, “these areas are built to the point of near completion before introducing people.”

Because of this, there is an interim period between the final phases of development and when the areas become noticeably populated, when many of the buildings stand empty, occasionally still cloaked in scrim. During this phase of development, sensationalist Western media often describe them as defunct “ghost cities,” which fails to recognize that they are built on an urban model, timeline, and scale that is simply unfamiliar to the methods of Western urbanization.

Caemmerer continued, pointing out that his interest in ostensibly empty urban environments is not about shaming China, or implying that unused architectural space is somehow only a non-Western problem. In fact, in another series—a few example of which I hope to post here in the near-future—Caemmerer turns his lens on his own home city of Chicago.

“I’m interested in what happens to the urban landscape when those who it was built for are not present,” he explained to me. “More specifically, I’m interested in what can be revealed by the architecture when it appears vacant.

Read more over at New Scientist.

(Thanks to Richard Mosse for putting me in touch with Caemmerer).


[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Here’s another prosthetic elevator project—in fact, the reason I posted the previous one—this time around designed by architect Carles Enrich for the riverside city of Gironella, Spain.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

The elevator connects the old and new parts of town, offering ease of access to the young and elderly alike, and reopening social and economic circulation between the two halves of the city.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Built using steel, glass, and bricks, the project also blends into the existing color scheme of the city, looking like a chimney or a church steeple, a tower of roofing tiles suddenly standing alongside the city’s cliff.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

Among many things, I love how unbelievably simple the project is: it’s just a rectangle, going from level A to level B. That’s it.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

I’m not entirely sure why I find projects like this so fascinating, in fact, but the notion that two radically separate vertical levels can suddenly be connected by the magic of architecture is one of the most fundamental promises of construction in the first place: that, through a clever use of design skills and materials, we can create or discover new forms of circulation and unity.

[Images: Photos by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

With staircases, of course, you have more leeway for introducing expressive shifts in direction and orientation, pinching floors together, for example, or introducing elaborate curls leading from one floor to the next.

The elevator, by contrast, seems remarkably sedate.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

It’s just a box you step into, and a vertical corridor you travel within. In the photo above, it’s like a dimly lit portal peeking up from some other, deeper district of the city.

Yet the ease of connection, and the use of subtle materials to realize it, are immensely exciting for some reason, as if we are all ever just one quick design gesture away from linking parts of the world in ways they never had been previously.

Just build an elevator: a pop-up vertical corridor delivering ascension where you’d least expected it.

[Image: Photo by Adrià Goula, courtesy of Carles Enrich].

In any case, read more about the project over at the architect’s own website, or at ArchDaily, where I first saw the project, and check out the previous post for another elevator, while you’re at it.


[Image: The “Barakka Lift” in Malta; photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

The forthcoming (i.e. next) post will retroactively serve as an otherwise arbitrary excuse for posting this project, one of my favorites of the last few years, a kind of castellated prosthetic elevator on the island of Malta by Architecture Project.

[Image: The “Barakka Lift” in Malta; photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

The twenty-story outdoor elevator “required a certain rigour to resolve the dichotomy between the strong historic nature of the site and the demands for better access placed upon it by cultural and economic considerations,” resulting in the choice of blunt industrial materials and stylized perforations.

[Image: Photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

As the architects describe it:

The geometric qualities of the plan echo the angular forms of the bastion walls, and the corrugated edges of the aluminium skin help modulate light as it hits the structure, emphasizing its verticality. The mesh masks the glazed lift carriages, recalling the forms of the original cage lifts, whilst providing shade and protection to passengers as they travel between the city of Valletta and the Mediterranean Sea.

Personally, I love the idea of what is, in effect, a kind of bolt-on castle, combining the language of one era—the Plug-In Cities of Archigram, say—with the aesthetics of the Knights of Malta.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

In fact, it’s almost tempting to write a design brief explicitly calling for new hybridizations of these approaches: modular, prefab construction… combined with Romanesque fortification.

[Image: Photo by Sean Mallia, courtesy of Architecture Project].

An emergency stairwell spirals down between the two parallel elevator shafts, which “also reduces the visual weight of the lift structure itself and accentuates the vertical proportions of the structure,” the architects suggest and contributes to perforating the outside surface beyond merely the presence of chainlink.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

In any case, it’s not a new project—like me, you probably saw this on Dezeen way back in 2013—but I was just glad to have a random excuse to post it.

[Image: Photo by Luis Rodríguez López, courtesy of Architecture Project].

Another elevator post coming soon

Computational Romanticism and the Dream Life of Driverless Cars

[Image by ScanLAB Projects for The New York Times Magazine].

Understanding how driverless cars see the world also means understanding how they mis-see things: the duplications, glitches, and scanning errors that, precisely because of their deviation from human perception, suggest new ways of interacting with and experiencing the built environment.

Stepping into or through the scanners of autonomous vehicles in order to look back at the world from their perspective is the premise of a short feature I’ve written for this weekend’s edition of The New York Times Magazine.

For a new series of urban images, Matt Shaw and Will Trossell of ScanLAB Projects tuned, tweaked, and augmented a LiDAR unit—one of the many tools used by self-driving vehicles to navigate—and turned it instead into something of an artistic device for experimentally representing urban space.

The resulting shots show the streets, bridges, and landmarks of London transformed through glitches into “a landscape of aging monuments and ornate buildings, but also one haunted by duplications and digital ghosts”:

The city’s double-­decker buses, scanned over and over again, become time-­stretched into featureless mega-­structures blocking whole streets at a time. Other buildings seem to repeat and stutter, a riot of Houses of Parliament jostling shoulder to shoulder with themselves in the distance. Workers setting out for a lunchtime stroll become spectral silhouettes popping up as aberrations on the edge of the image. Glass towers unravel into the sky like smoke. Trossell calls these “mad machine hallucinations,” as if he and Shaw had woken up some sort of Frankenstein’s monster asleep inside the automotive industry’s most advanced imaging technology.

Along the way I had the pleasure of speaking to Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon and the author of Robot Futures, a book I previously featured here on the blog back in 2013. Nourbakhsh is impressively adept at generating potential narrative scenarios—speculative accidents, we might call them—in which technology might fail or be compromised, and his take on the various perceptual risks or interpretive short-comings posed by autonomous vehicle technology was fascinating.

[Image by ScanLAB Projects for The New York Times Magazine].

Alas, only one example from our long conversation made it into the final article, but it is worth repeating. Nourbakhsh used “the metaphor of the perfect storm to describe an event so strange that no amount of programming or image-­recognition technology can be expected to understand it”:

Imagine someone wearing a T-­shirt with a STOP sign printed on it, he told me. “If they’re outside walking, and the sun is at just the right glare level, and there’s a mirrored truck stopped next to you, and the sun bounces off that truck and hits the guy so that you can’t see his face anymore—well, now your car just sees a stop sign. The chances of all that happening are diminishingly small—it’s very, very unlikely—but the problem is we will have millions of these cars. The very unlikely will happen all the time.”

The most interesting takeaway from this sort of scenario, however, is not that the technology is inherently flawed or limited, but that these momentary mirages and optical illusions are not, in fact, ephemeral: in a very straightforward, functional sense, they become a physical feature of the urban landscape because they exert spatial influences on the machines that (mis-)perceive them.

Nourbakhsh’s STOP sign might not “actually” be there—but it is actually there if it causes a self-driving car to stop.

Immaterial effects of machine vision become digitally material landmarks in the city, affecting traffic and influencing how machines safely operate. But, crucially, these are landmarks that remain invisible to human beings—and it is ScanLAB’s ultimate representational goal here to explore what it means to visualize them.

While, in the piece, I compare ScanLAB’s work to the heyday of European Romanticism—that ScanLAB are, in effect, documenting an encounter with sublime and inhuman landscapes that, here, are not remote mountain peaks but the engineered products of computation—writer Asher Kohn suggested on Twitter that, rather, it should be considered “Italian futurism made real,” with sweeping scenes of streets and buildings unraveling into space like digital smoke. It’s a great comparison, and worth developing at greater length.

For now, check out the full piece over at The New York Times Magazine: “The Dream Life of Driverless Cars.”


[Image: L.A.T.B.D. by Smout Allen for USC Libraries; photo by Stonehouse Photographic].

I wanted to give a quick heads up that a new collaborative exhibition will be opening to the public later today in the Doheny Memorial Library at USC here in Los Angeles, featuring work by myself and Smout Allen.

Called L.A.T.B.D., the project looks at diverse narrative, scientific, architectural, and landscape futures of Los Angeles. It is a city always yet to be determined—or L.A., T.B.D.

The exhibition actually comes at the very end of the 2015 USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, which I’ve had the honor of holding this year, the challenge of which was to use the archival holdings of USC as a springboard for looking forward toward whatever Los Angeles might become.

Like plotting a ballistic trajectory, if we know where L.A. has been—if we can see the ingredients of its past, from its prehuman landscapes to the 2012 procession of the Space Shuttle—can we determine where the city might be, 10, 20, 100 years from now?

[Image: L.A.T.B.D. by Smout Allen for USC Libraries; photo by Stonehouse Photographic].

The overall curatorial idea was that, hidden within USC’s impressive and seemingly endless archival holdings, there might be glimpses of an L.A. yet to come, and that a project such as this should find a way of bringing that future version of the city into focus.

However, not one for prediction or prescriptive visions of tomorrow, I wanted this to be far more open-ended than that. We thus developed several parallel lines of materials for the show.

[Image: L.A.T.B.D. by Smout Allen for USC Libraries; photo by Stonehouse Photographic].

One, of course, are a series of gorgeous models designed and fabricated by Smout Allen, showing various hypothetical scenarios for the future city. In one, huge pendulums have been installed beneath the streets to act as seismic counterweights, protecting the city from earthquakes.

In another, the titanic forces released by plate tectonics can be captured by a new kind of power station, converting those otherwise threatening movements of the earth into a source of renewable energy.

In yet another, the city’s freeway system has been converted into a kind of immersive astronomical device, to help train the eyes of this city of stars on an older and more important firmament above.

This work also served as a direct source for the related project we did for this year’s inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial.

[Image: L.A.T.B.D. by Smout Allen for USC Libraries; photo by Stonehouse Photographic].

Another key part of the L.A.T.B.D. exhibition is an interactive text that allows visitors to, in a sense, choose their own future for the metropolis. This text combines a small-scale look at what sort of Los Angeles might yet greet our unborn descendants—complete with neighborhoods flooded by sea-level rise, widespread demographic shifts, and corrupt political machinations—with a subtext of noir or urban mystery.

Put another way, if this is a city known for its conspiracies and crimes—whether it’s Chinatown, O.J. Simpson, bank heists, or the novels of James Ellroy—can we use that same narrative register to explore the city’s future infrastructure?

[Images: L.A.T.B.D.‘s accompanying exhibition text, designed by David Mellen Design; terrible photos by Geoff Manaugh].

I started referring to this as a kind of architectural or infrastructural noir, and I’ve come to really like the phrase: the accompanying exhibition text is thus not at all what you’d expect to see in a typical gallery setting, but instead tells an endlessly branching “noir” about the next Los Angeles—by, in some ways, revealing what Los Angeles really was, all along.

[Image: L.A.T.B.D.‘s accompanying exhibition text, designed by David Mellen Design; terrible photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Finally, the exhibition includes a series of historical artifacts from the USC Libraries holdings, from old scientific reports to transportation policy papers, from obsolete urban predictions from the 1980s to board games set in a premodern L.A.

Here, working with designer David Mellen, we had a lot of fun, deliberately crossing and recrossing the line between fiction and reality: that is, not every artifact you see in the exhibition should be trusted, and things might not always be what they seem.

There’s much more to say about the exhibition, but I wanted to get a quick post up before the show opens later this afternoon. There is a reception tonight at 5:30pm in the library, or consider stopping by on Saturday, October 17, from noon to 1pm, to talk to myself and Smout Allen about the project. Saturday’s event is part of the “Archives Bazaar.”

L.A.T.B.D. was made possible by support from the USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship, the Bartlett School of Architecture, UCL, and the British Council. Special thanks are owed to Dean Catherine Quinlan; to Jeff Watson; to the USC Libraries staff; and to Harry Grocott, Doug Miller, and Sandra Youkhana.

A Crack in Space-Time

This is purely promotional, but I wanted to mention that I am up in San Francisco for two nights to speak as part of Pop-Up Magazine, a live-event offshoot of the new publication California Sunday; I’m joining a stellar group of other writers, photographers, broadcasters, artists, animators, and more, to talk about one of the stranger and more architecturally interesting figures from my book A Burglar’s Guide to the City, which comes out in April.

I don’t want to say much more about the story I’ll be telling, but it involves endlessly recommitting the same burglary over and over again, falling through “a crack in space-time,” living inside the walls of a Toys“R”Us—and it’s all true.

Tickets are still available for a few of the cities, over on the Pop-Up Magazine website, as we will be leaving San Francisco for a national tour through Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and Brooklyn. Stop by, if you can, and say hello!

Human Chess

[Image: Photo by Seph Lawless, from his book Autopsy of America].

Many of the ideas being proposed these days for housing international refugees, including families fleeing from the war in Syria, are beginning to sound less like genuine examples of humanitarian outreach and more like a strange new form of hide-and-seek, a bizarre ploy at stashing live human beings in ever-more resourceful locations, like searching for a clever new place beneath your back stairs to store excess home goods.

Three stories, in particular, seem to stand out for this—coming across not as real solutions to human tragedy but as a kind of abstract mathematical exercise.

A notable example of this came last year, in the summer of 2014, when FEMA was allegedly looking into housing migrant children—that is, “unaccompanied minors” from countries outside the United States—inside abandoned shopping malls and empty big box stores.

As The New Republic reported at the time, FEMA was searching for examples of an “‘office space, warehouse, big box store, shopping mall with interior concourse, event venues, hotel or dorms, aircraft hangers [sic]’—provided that they are vacant and able to be leased.”

The strange dystopia of this—cramming literally thousands of children who are, at least temporarily, orphans, into derelict shopping malls, empty hotels, and disused office complexes—outweighs the potential cleverness of finding, hidden in plain sight, an architectural resource ripe for humanitarian reuse.

[Image: Photo by Seph Lawless, from his book Autopsy of America].

As FEMA themselves make clear, such facilities are only useful if they are already outfitted with showers and bathrooms, among other bare necessities; retrofitting them for this purpose, while knowing that the day you need to put those showers to use might never arrive, would be both financially improbable and ominously permanent.

More optimistically, however, consider the case of dual-use infrastructure as put to use during events of mass quarantine. As Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, explained in a joint interview with BLDGBLOG and Edible Geography back in 2009, large architectural complexes not only can be designed for these sorts of secondary uses, but it’s actually a very good idea to do so.

While Benjamin’s primary example in that interview was a sports stadium outfitted for secondary use as a quarantine ward or post-earthquake gathering place, you could quite easily imagine entire shopping malls being designed such that they could be repurposed, with minor fuss, as de facto community centers following major events of social upheaval.

After all, many of today’s malls, schools, airports, and office complexes already contain—or even double as—tornado shelters. Surely, FEMA’s proposal is just a more ambitious continuation of this idea, scaling it up to the point that housing 500 children in an abandoned Circuit City would actually make architectural sense? If successful, it would give the idea of “big box reuse” a whole new valance.

Yet the reality of this threatens to be far less polished than such a speculative vision might otherwise suggest.

Indeed, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this could become a clear case of good architectural intentions gone surreally awry. We might well create one of the emptiest childhood experiences imaginable, a Ballardian architectural prism through which eventually tens of thousands of “unaccompanied minors” would be filtered into something vaguely resembling adulthood. Unaccompanied minors, raised by abandoned malls.

[Image: Photo by Seph Lawless, from his book Autopsy of America].

In any case, the ill-conceived plans don’t end there.

As the Syrian refugee crisis accelerated over the past two months, the idea of housing refugees on Svalbard—a sparsely populated archipelago north of the Arctic Circle, known not for its strong sociopolitical infrastructure but for its polar bears—was suggested by Norwegian politicians.

Exactly how Svalbard would be transformed overnight into a land of economic opportunity was not discussed as part of the plan—although, unbelievably, coal mining was suggested as one possible route toward assimilation and success.

Moving broken families from the Middle East to what is, in effect, the North Pole so that they can mine coal there in an impossibly remote frozen landscape surrounded by polar bears sounds like something Josef Stalin would have come up with, lending even more of an air of unexpected inhumanity to these so-called “plans.”

But a third option, while seeming at first to be the most sensible example of this sub-genre of human chess, is possibly the strangest. “Let The Syrians Settle Detroit,” an op-ed for The New York Times suggested last month. The underlying logic is sound: the city’s population has plummeted, there is already a strong Muslim community in Michigan, and refugees very often exhibit strong entrepreneurial tendencies.

So far, so good.

[Image: Abandoned Packard plant in Detroit, via Wikipedia].

On the other hand, if Detroit’s only problem was population, then other people would already be moving back to fill that city’s wide-open economic niches; in fact, this has been the purported goal of many recent programs aimed at inspiring millennial artists and entrepreneurs to move there from overpriced cities such as San Francisco and Brooklyn and “revitalize” the region, an aim not without its own complex racial and political complications.

Worse, though, Detroit was not carefully moth-balled and set aside with packing tape for future generations simply to move in and reclaim it. It’s not a turn-key urban fantasy lying in wait for someone to come back, flip a switch, and turn the lights—and the police, and the fire departments, and the healthcare—back on. Its infrastructure is in decline; its streetlights and even its water supply are gradually being shut off; its houses are being torn down by the hundreds.

Randomly settling 50,000 Syrian refugees there straight from a war zone would mean depositing people in a condition of notoriously rapid urban decline, without any real cultural or economic context in which to orient themselves.

My own suggestion here is not in any way that a war zone in the Middle East would be preferable to living in Detroit—although it is worth noting that the premise of this program is precisely that only people fleeing war would want to live there.

However, people aren’t just game pieces you move from one place to another, swept up by your own architectural cleverness. If they were, well, then let’s put refugees on abandoned oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, or move them all to Centralia, gas masks thrown in for free. Let’s settle them in abandoned trailers as fracking “man camps” go empty.

Realizing that something is currently uninhabited does not mean that you can just fill it with human beings and expect a new society to take root. This is a geometric exercise—an experiment in space-packing—not a humanitarian plan.

Finding new homes—whether or not this “solves” the underlying geopolitical problem—is morally and economically necessary, and it will benefit everyone; but turning involuntary mass migration into a new form of architectural science fiction is not the way to go.