No Wall Is Ever Silent

Amidst a huge number of novels I’ve been reading lately for a variety of reasons is the book Nineveh by Henrietta Rose-Innes.

The book is set in Ninevah, a luxurious, new, South African real estate development that has been temporarily abandoned before its official opening due to an unspecified infestation; the action centers on an “ethical pest removal specialist” named Katya Grubbs. Katya has been hired by Mr. Brand, a swaggering, whiskey-fueled golfer and property developer, to clear Nineveh’s looming and empty buildings of whatever it is that has hatched there.

While I will confess that there were several scenes in which Katya’s actions seemed inexplicable to me, Rose-Innes’s descriptions of Nineveh and of the looming presence of infesting insects squirming just beneath the surface are nonetheless both beautifully written and resolutely Ballardian in tone.

For example, the land that Nineveh was built on “was reclaimed,” we read. “Katya wonders how much of the wetlands they had to drain, how many thousands of vertebrate or invertebrate souls were displaced or destroyed to make this place. In her experience, a poorly drained property is a magnet for all kinds of damp-loving pests: water-snakes, slugs and especially mosquitoes. The rising water and its travelers always find a way back in.”

“Indeed,” the narrative continues, “beyond Nineveh’s perimeter, everything is insistently alive and pushing to enter.”

This older, overlooked ecosystem, dismissed as a nuisance, now threatens literally to come back up through the floorboards.

Wandering around amidst the huge buildings, a J. G. Ballard among the insects, Katya discovers ruined rooms and even a rain-soaked smuggling tunnel used to strip the uninhabited suites of their woodwork, pipes, and copper.

Katya soon suspects that she is not, in fact, alone. She puts her ear to the wall one night, convinced she hears someone on the other side: “No wall is ever silent; always there is a subdued orchestra of knocks and sighs and oceanic rushing. The hum of pipes, the creaks of bricks and mortar settling. Or unsettling: such sounds are the minute harbingers of future destruction, the first tiny tremors of a very, very slow collapse that will end, decades or centuries from now, in a pile of rubble.”

Without, I hope, giving away much of the plot, there is a confrontation later in the book, deep in the interior of one of these buildings, in a scene where everyone realizes how flimsy the construction around them really is. The buildings are just masks on empty space. Katya’s temperament is such that she has already realized this, suspecting all along that the apparent paradise of Nineveh was all just wishful projection; other, less cynical characters fare poorly.

What follows is an insight about architecture’s false reliability—that we are, in fact, deluded to take our buildings at face-value—that I also try to make in my book, A Burglar’s Guide to the City. This excerpt thus particularly stood out to me:

One thing about having a belief in the fixed nature of things, in walls and floors: it gives you a certain disadvantage. Mr. Brand, for all his solid confidence, in fact because of it, cannot look beyond the obvious, cannot see past the evidence of the concrete world. He can’t consider that perhaps the walls are false, or that the floorboards might conceal strange depths. Despite his rage, he would not think to punch through a wall: it would not occur to him that walls are breachable. In Mr. Brand’s world of certainties, such an in-between place is hardly possible; it barely exists.

The collapsing world of Nineveh, with its hollow walls, smugglers’ tunnels, and rising tides of storm-borne insects, twinned with Katya’s own house that is literally splitting in two from seismic disturbances caused by the heavy machinery of gentrification across the street, presents us with a precariously inhabited world barely standing still on its foundations. Yet within those foundations are the bugs and worms, beetles and snakes, temporarily beaten back by humans but on the verge of retaking the scene.

In any case, you can read reviews at Kirkus or the Guardian.

The Walled City (10-Mile Version)

[Image: “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

A new exhibition opens next week at the Hubbell Street Galleries in San Francisco, part of the California College of the Arts, called Drawing Codes: Experimental Protocols of Architectural Representation. The idea behind the group show is to look at “the relationship between code and drawing” (emphases theirs), or “how rules and constraints inform the ways we document, analyze, represent, and design the built environment.”

Drawing Codes is curated by Andrew Kudless and Adam Marcus, with Clayton Muhleman, and it features work by Erin Besler, Elena Manferdini, Jimenez Lai, the Oyler Wu Collaborative, Rael San Fratello, and many more.

As Kudless—of Matsys fame—pointed out to me over email, the curators “gave all of the participants a set of codes that they had to follow (e.g. all black and white, orthographic projection, 25″ x 25″, etc.),” using this set of constraints to, among other things, foreground differences in approach between each participating architect.

If everyone’s doing the same thing, then how each person does it becomes more revealing.

[Image: “Half-Hearted Diamonds” by Jimenez Lai/Bureau Spectacular].

Perhaps ironically, it was actually the drawing by Kudless himself—which I first saw on Instagram—that caught my interest.

Called “The Walled City (10-Mile Version),” that project imagines an entire metropolis that is nothing but one, continuous wall.

Kudless explained that it came about by posing himself a rhetorical question: “What would a city look like if it was a wall and nothing else? I’ve been fascinated with walls that have grown thick enough to be buildings in themselves. From medieval European city walls to the Great Wall in China, there is something really interesting about taking something that is ostensively about separating two territories and turning into an inhabitable space in its own right.”

[Image: Close-up from “The Walled City (10-Mile Version)” by Andrew Kudless/Matsys].

The results: a rule-constrained exploration of how a wall could become a city.

I started to play around with slowly increasing a wall’s length while preventing it from moving outside a site or intersecting itself. At a certain point in the growth process, the wall takes over the entire site. There is still an inside and outside to the wall, but sometimes the outside is deep inside the site boundary or vice versa. At that point, I was left with a big squiggly wall, but realized that I needed some sort of roofscape to make it read as a city and not just a thick wall. That’s when I turned to Google’s autocomplete feature to give me suggestions on what programs [spatial functions] a rooftop might support. I worked my way from A to Z pretty much accepting whatever suggestion Google’s autocomplete gave me and started designing parametric definitions that could implement that program on a number of different sites along the wall’s top.

The various social and architectural functions distributed around the massive roofscape included, for example, Rooftop Antenna, Rooftop Bar, Rooftop Cafe, Rooftop Deck, Rooftop Exhaust, Rooftop Film, Rooftop Garden, Rooftop Hotel Pool, and so on.

Interestingly, Kudless also pointed out that, if he were to run the same generative script again, it would likely produce “a similar, but not identical city,” and it would almost certainly not result in a wall exactly ten miles in length (which, in this case, was purely a coincidence, he explained).

In any case, I’ve been impressed by Kudless’s work for a long time; check out these older posts on his projects Nevada Sietch and robotic drawing protocols, for example, and then stop by the exhibition when it opens next week. There will be a reception on January 19 at 5:30pm at 161 Hubbell Street. More info.

Voids and Vacuums

[Image: Google Maps view of Mosul Dam (bottom center) and the huge reservoir it creates].

Dexter Filkins—author of, among other things, The Forever War—has a long new piece in the first 2017 issue of The New Yorker about the impending collapse of Iraq’s Mosul Dam.

The scale of the potential disaster is mind-boggling.

If the dam ruptured, it would likely cause a catastrophe of Biblical proportions, loosing a wave as high as a hundred feet that would roll down the Tigris, swallowing everything in its path for more than a hundred miles. Large parts of Mosul would be submerged in less than three hours. Along the riverbanks, towns and cities containing the heart of Iraq’s population would be flooded; in four days, a wave as high as sixteen feet would crash into Baghdad, a city of six million people. “If there is a breach in the dam, there will be no warning,” Alwash said. “It’s a nuclear bomb with an unpredictable fuse.”

Indeed, “hundreds of thousands of people could be killed,” according to a UN report cited by Filkins.

What’s interesting from a technical perspective is why the dam is so likely to collapse. It’s a question of foundations. The dam was built, Filkins writes, on rock “interspersed with gypsum—which dissolves in contact with water. Dams built on this kind of rock are subject to a phenomenon called karstification, in which the foundation becomes shot through with voids and vacuums.”

Filling those voids with grout is now a constant job, requiring dam engineers to pump huge amounts of cementitious slurry down into the porous rock in order to replace the dissolved gypsum.

[Image: Mosul Dam spillway; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].

At one point, Filkins goes inside the dam where “engineers are engaged in what amounts to an endless struggle against nature. Using antiquated pumps as large as truck engines, they drive enormous quantities of liquid cement into the earth. Since the dam opened, in 1984, engineers working in the gallery have pumped close to a hundred thousand tons of grout—an average of ten tons a day—into the voids below.”

Finding and caulking these voids, Filkins writes, is “deeply inexact.” They are deep underground and remain unseen; they have to be inferred. The resulting process is both absurd and never-ending.

The engineers operating [the grout pumps] can’t see the voids they are filling and have no way of discerning their size or shape. A given void might be as big as a closet, or a car, or a house. It could be a single spacious cavity, requiring mounds of grout, or it could be an octopus-like tangle, with winding sub-caverns, or a hairline fracture. “We feel our way through,” [deputy director Hussein al-Jabouri] said, standing by the pump. Generally, smaller cavities require thinner grout, so Jabouri started with a milky solution and increased its thickness as the void took more. Finally, after several hours, he stopped; his intuition, aided by the pressure gauges, told him that the cavity was full. “It’s a crapshoot,” [civil engineer Azzam Alwash] told me. “There’s no X-ray vision. You stop grouting when you can’t put any more grout in a hole. It doesn’t mean the hole is gone.”

It’s hard not to think of a scene in Georges Perec’s novel Life: A User’s Manual, a scene I have written about before. There, a character named Emilio Grifalconi picks up an old, used table only to find that the support column at its center is “completely worm-eaten.” Slowly, painstakingly, operating by intuition, he fills the worm-eaten passages with a permanent adhesive, “injecting them with an almost liquid mixture of lead, alum and asbestos fiber.”

The table collapses anyway, alas, giving Grifalconi an idea: “dissolving what was left of the original wood” in order to “disclose the fabulous arborescence within, this exact record of the worms’ life inside the wooden mass: a static, mineral accumulation of all the movements that had constituted their blind existence, their undeviating single-mindedness, their obstinate itineraries; the faithful materialization of all they had eaten and digested as they forced from their dense surroundings the invisible elements needed for their survival, the explicit, visible, immeasurably disturbing image of the endless progressions that had reduced the hardest of woods to an impalpable network of crumbling galleries.”

Whether or not such a rhizomatic tangle of grout-filled chambers, linked “voids and vacuums” like subterranean grapes, could ever be uncovered and explored beneath the future ruins of a safely dismantled Mosul Dam is something I will leave for engineers.

[Image: Mosul Dam water release; photo by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brendan Stephens].

However, Filkins points out one possible solution that would sidestep all of this: this option, he writes, “which has lately gained currency, is to erect a ‘permanent’ seal of the existing dam wall—a mile-long concrete curtain dropped eight hundred feet into the earth.”

This would not be the only huge subterranean wall to be proposed recently: think of the “giant ice wall” under construction beneath the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan: “Japan is about to switch on a huge refrigeration system that will create a 1.5-km-long, underground frozen ‘wall,’ in hopes of containing the radioactive water that’s spilling out of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, which went into meltdown following the earthquake and tsunami of March 2011.”

Read more over at The New Yorker.

A Wall of Walls

[Image: River valley outside Kamdesh, Afghanistan, where the “Battle of Kamdesh” occurred, an assault that loosely serves as the basis for part of John Renehan’s novel, The Valley].

While we’re on the subject of books, an interesting novel I read earlier this year is The Valley by John Renehan. It’s a kind of police procedural set on a remote U.S. military base in the mountains of Afghanistan, fusing elements of investigative noir, a missing-person mystery, and, to a certain extent, a post-9/11 geopolitical thriller, all in one.

Architecturally speaking, the book’s includes a noteworthy scene quite late in the book—please look away now if you’d like to avoid a minor spoiler—in which the main character attempts to learn why a particularly isolated valley on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan seems so unusually congested with insurgent fighters and other emergent sources of local conflict.

He thus hikes his way up through heavily guarded opium fields to what feels like the edge of the known world, as the valley he’s tracking steadily narrows ever upward until “there were no more river sounds. He’d gotten above the springs and runoff that fed it.” In the context of the novel, this scene feels as if the man has stepped off-stage, ascending to a world of solitude, clouds, and mountain silence.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Staff Sergeant Adam Mancini].

What he sees there, however, is that the entire valley, in effect, has been quarantined. A baffling and massive concrete wall has been constructed by the U.S. military across the entire pass, severing the connection between two neighboring countries and forming an absolute barrier to insurgent troop movements. The wall has also decimated—or, at least, substantially harmed—the local economy.

Attempts to blow it up have left visible scars on its flanks, resulting in a blackened super-wall that is so far away from regional villages that many people don’t even know it’s there; they only know its side-effects.

“It was an impressive construction,” Renehan writes. “There was no way they got vehicles all the way up here. It must have been heavy-lift helicopters laying in all the pieces and equipment.”

[Image: U.S. military helicopter in Afghanistan, courtesy U.S. Army, taken by by Staff Sgt. Marcus J. Quarterman].

It was a titanic undertaking, “a wall of walls,” in his words, an improvised barrier like something out of Mad Max:

Concrete blast barriers lined up twenty feet high, one against another on the slanting ground, shingled all across the gap, with another layer of shorter walls piled haphazardly atop, and more shoring up the gaps at the bottom. There must have been another complete set of walls built behind the one he could see, because the whole hulking thing had been filled with cement. It had oozed and dried like frosting at the seams, puddling through the gaps at the bottom.

The man puts his hand on the concrete, knowing now that the whole valley had simply been sealed off. It “was closed.”

There are many things that interest me here. One is this notion that a distant megastructure, something of which few people are aware, nonetheless exhibits direct and tangible effects in their everyday lives; you might not even know such a structure exists, in other words, but your life has been profoundly shaped by it.

The metaphoric possibilities here are obvious.

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by Spc. Ken Scar, 7th MPAD].

But I was also reminded of another famous military wall constructed in a remote mountain landscape to keep a daunting adversary at bay, the so-called “Alexander’s Gates,” a monumental—and entirely mythic—architectural project allegedly built by Alexander the Great in the Caucasus region to keep monsters out of Europe. This myth was the Pacific Rim of its day, we might say.

I first encountered the story of Alexander’s Gates in Stephen T. Asma’s book, On Monsters.

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration. (…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

On the other side of Alexander’s Gates was what Asma memorably calls a “monster zone.”

[Image: Photo courtesy U.S. Army, taken by U.S. Army Pfc. Andrya Hill, 4th Brigade Combat Team].

In any case, you can learn a bit more about the gates in this earlier post on BLDGBLOG, but it instantly came to mind while reading The Valley.

Renehan’s bulging “wall of walls,” constructed by U.S. military helicopters in a hostile landscape so remote it is all but over the edge of the world, purely with the goal of sealing off an entire mountain valley, is a kind of 21st-century update to Alexander’s Gates.

In fact, it makes me wonder what sorts of megastructures exist in contemporary global military mythology—what urban legends soldiers tell themselves and each other about their own forces or those of their adversaries—from underground super-bunkers to unbreachable desert walls. What are the Alexander’s Gates of today?

Bunker Simulations

[Image: A replica of the Nazis’ Atlantic Wall defenses in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

The continent-spanning line of concrete bunkers built by the Nazis during WWII, known as the “Atlantic Wall,” was partially recreated in the United Kingdom—in more than one location—to assist with military training.

These simulated Nazi bunkers now survive as largely overlooked ruins amidst the fields, disquieting yet picturesque earth forms covered in plants and lichen, their internal rebar exposed to the weather and twisted by explosives, serving as quiet reminders of the European battlefield.

The various wall sites even include trenches, anti-tank ditches, and other defensive works carved into the ground, forming a kind of landscape garden of simulated fortification.

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

As the Herald Scotland reported the other day, one of these walls “was built at Sheriffmuir, in the hills above Dunblane, in 1943 as preparations were being made to invade Europe. The problem was the Nazis had built a formidable line of concrete defenses from Norway all the way to the Spanish border and if D-Day was to have any chance of success, the British and their allies would have to get over those defenses.”

This, of course, “is why the wall at Sheriffmuir was built: it was a way for the British forces to practise their plan of attack and understand what they would face. They shot at it, they smashed into it, and they blew it up as a way of testing the German defences ahead of D-Day.”

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

It would certainly be difficult to guess what these structures are at first glance, or why such behemoth constructions would have been built in these locations; stumbling upon them with no knowledge of their history would suggest some dark alternative history of WWII in which the Nazis had managed to at least partially conquer Britain, leaving behind these half-buried fortresses in their wake.

Indeed, the history of the walls remains relatively under-exposed, even in Britain, and a new archaeological effort to scan all of the defenses and mount an exhibition about them in the Dunblane Museum is thus now underway.

[Image: A replica of the Atlantic Wall in Scotland; photo via Stirling 2014].

The story of the Scottish wall’s construction is also intriguingly odd. It revolves around an act of artistic espionage, courtesy of “a French painter and decorator called Rene Duchez.”

Duchez, the newspaper explains, “got his hands on the blueprints for the German defences while painting the offices of engineering group TODT, which [had been hired] to build the Atlantic walls. He hid the plans in a biscuit tin, which was smuggled to Britain and used as the blueprint for the wall at Sheriffmuir.”

But Scotland is not the only UK site of a simulated Nazi super-wall: there were also ersatz bunkers built in Surrey, Wales, and Suffolk. In fact, the one in Surrey, built on Hankley Common, is not all that far from my in-laws, so I’ll try to check it out in person next time I’m over in England.

[Images: An Atlantic Wall replica in Surrey; top photo by Shazz, bottom three photos via Wikipedia].

Attempts at archaeological preservation aside, these walls seem destined to fade into the landscape for the next several millennia, absorbed back into the forests and fields; along the way, they’ll join other ancient features like Hadrian’s Wall on the itinerary of future military history buffs, just another site to visit on a slow Sunday stroll, their original context all but forgotten.

(Spotted via Archaeology. Previously on BLDGBLOG: In the Box: A Tour Through The Simulated Battlefields of the U.S. National Training Center and Model Landscape].

Alexander’s Gates

One of many books I’ve been enjoying this autumn is On Monsters by Stephen T. Asma, an extended look into where formal deviation occurs in the world and what unexpected, often emotionally disconcerting, shapes and forces can result.

[Image: The Dariel Pass in the Caucausus Mountains, rumored possible site of the mythic Alexander’s Gates].

According to Asma, measuring these swerves and abnormalities against each other—and against ourselves—can shed much-needed light on the alternative “developmental trajectories” by which monsters come into being. This speculative monsterology, as he describes it it, would thus uncover the rules by which even the most stunning mutational transformations occur—allowing us to catalog extraordinary beings according to what Asma calls a “continuum of strangeness: first, nonnative species, then familiar beasts with unfamiliar sizes or modified body parts, then hybrids of surprising combination, and finally, at the furthest margins, shape-shifters and indescribable creatures.” Asma specifically mentions “mosaic beings,” beings “grafted together or hybridized by nature or artifice.”

In the book’s fascinating first-third—easily the book’s best section—Asma spends a great deal of time describing ancient myths of variation by which monsters were believed to have originated. From the mind-blowing and completely inexplicable discovery of dinosaur bones by ancient societies with no conception of geological time to the hordes of “monstrous races” believed to exist on the imperial perimeter, there have always been monsters somewhere in the world’s geography.

Of specific relevance to an architecture blog, however, are Alexander’s Gates.

[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, mythic isotope to Alexander’s Gates].

Alexander’s Gates, Asma writes, were the ultimate wall between the literally Caucasian West and its monstrous opponents, dating back to Alexander the Great:

Alexander supposedly chased his foreign enemies through a mountain pass in the Caucasus region and then enclosed them behind unbreachable iron gates. The details and the symbolic significance of the story changed slightly in every medieval retelling, and it was retold often, especially in the age of exploration.

(…) The maps of the time, the mappaemundi, almost always include the gates, though their placement is not consistent. Most maps and narratives of the later medieval period agree that this prison territory, created proximately by Alexander but ultimately by God, houses the savage tribes of Gog and Magog, who are referred to with great ambiguity throughout the Bible, and sometimes as individual monsters, sometimes as nations, sometimes as places.

Beyond this wall was a “monster zone.”

[Image: The geography of Us vs. Them, in a “12th century map by the Muslim scholar Al-Idrisi. ‘Yajooj’ and ‘Majooj’ (Gog and Magog) appear in Arabic script on the bottom-left edge of the Eurasian landmass, enclosed within dark mountains, at a location corresponding roughly to Mongolia.” Via Wikipedia].

Interestingly, a variation of this story is also told within Islam—indeed, in the Koran itself. In Islamic mythology, however, Alexander the Great is replaced by a figure called Dhul-Qarnayn (who might also be a legendary variation on the Persian king Cyrus).

Even more interesting than that, however, the Koran‘s own story of geographically distant monsters entombed behind a vast wall—the border fence as theological infrastructure—appears to be a kind of literary remix of the so-called Alexander Romance. To quote that widely known religious authority Wikipedia, “The story of Dhul-Qarnayn in the Qur’an… matches the Gog and Magog episode in the Romance, which has caused some controversy among Islamic scholars.” That is, the Koran, supposedly the exact and holy words of God himself, actually contains a secular myth from 3rd-century Greece.

The construction of Dhul-Qarnayn’s wall against the non-Muslim monstrous hordes can specifically be found in verses 18:89-98. For instance:

“…Lend me a force of men, and I will raise a rampart between you and them. Come, bring me blocks or iron.”
He dammed up the valley between the Two Mountains, and said: “Ply your bellows.” And when the iron blocks were red with heat, he said: “Bring me molten brass to pour on them.”
Gog and Magog could not scale it, nor could they dig their way through it.

Think of it as a kind of religious quarantine—a biosafe wall through which no moral contagion could pass.

[Image: Constructing the wall of Dhul-Qarnayn, via Wikipedia].

But as with all border walls, and all imperial limits, there will someday be a breach.

For instance, Asma goes on to cite a book, published in the 14th century, called the Travels of Sir John Mandeville. There, we read how Alexander’s Gates will, on some future day blackened by the full horror of monstrous return, be rendered completely obsolete:

In the end, Mandeville predicts, a lowly fox will bring the chaos of invading monsters upon the heads of the Christians. He claims, without revealing how he comes by such specific prophecy, that during the time of the Antichrist a fox will dig a hole through Alexander’s gates and emerge inside the monster zone. The monsters will be amazed to see the fox, as such creatures do not live there locally, and they will follow it until it reveals its narrow passageway between the gates. The cursed sons of Cain will finally burst forth from the gates, and the realm of the reprobate will be emptied into the apocalyptic world.

In any case, the idea that the line between human and not-human has been represented in myth and religion as a very specifically architectural form—that is, a literal wall built high in the mountains, far away—is absolutely fascinating to me.

Further, it’s not hard to wonder how Alexander’s Gates compare, on the level of imperial psychology, to things like the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, the U.S./Mexico border fence, or the Distant Early Warning Line—even London’s Ring of Steel—let alone the Black Gates of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

[Image: A map of the Distant Early Warning Line, an electromagnetic Alexander’s Gates for the Cold War].

Perhaps there is a kind of theological Hyperborder waiting to be written about the Wall of Gog and Magog.

Or could someone produce an architectural history of border stations as described in world mythology? I sense an amazing Ph.D. research topic here.