The London Time Ball

timeball[Image: The London “time ball” at Greenwich, courtesy Royal Museums Greenwich].

Thanks to the effects of jet lag getting worse as I get older, I was basically awake for five days in London last week—but, on the bright side, it meant I got to read a ton of books.

Amongst them was an interesting new look at the history of weather science and atmospheric forecasting—sky futures!—by Peter Moore called The Weather Experiment. There were at least two things in it worth commenting on, one of which I’ll save for the next post.

This will doubtless already be common knowledge for many people, of course, but I was thrilled to learn about something called the London “time ball.” Installed at the Greenwich Royal Observatory in 1833 by John Pond, England’s Royal Astronomer, the time ball was a kind of secular church bell, an acoustic spacetime signal for ships.

It was “a large metal ball,” Moore writes, “attached to a pole at the Royal Observatory. At 1 p.m. each day it dropped to earth with an echoing thud so that ships in the Thames could calibrate their chronometers.” As such, it soon “became a familiar part of the Greenwich soundscape,” an Enlightenment variation on the Bow Bells. Born within sound of the time signal…

timeball1[Image: Historic shot of the time ball, via the South London Branch of the British Horological Institute].

There are many things I love about this, but one is the sheer fact that time was synchronized by something as unapologetically blunt as a sound reverberating over the waters. It would have passed through all manner of atmospheric conditions—through fog and smoke, through rain and wind—as well as through a labyrinth of physical obstructions, amidst overlapping ships and buildings, as if shattering the present moment into an echo chamber.

Calculating against these distortions would have presented a fascinating sort of acoustic relativity, as captains and their crew members would have needed to determine exactly how much time had been lost between the percussive thudding of the signal and their inevitably delayed hearing of it.

In fact, this suggests an interesting future design project: time-signal reflection landscapes for the Thames, or time-reflection surfaces and other acoustic follies for maritime London, helping mitigate against adverse atmospheric effects on antique devices of synchronization.

In any case, the other thing I love here is the abstract idea that, at this zero point for geography—that is, the prime meridian of the modern world—a perfect Platonic solid would knock out a moment of synchrony, and that Moore’s “echoing thud” at this precise dividing line between East and West would thus be encoded into the navigational plans of captains sailing out around the curvature of the earth, their expeditions grounded in time by this mark of sonic punctuation.

Abandoned Basements as Stormwater Basins

[Image: Rendering of a possible “BaseTern” landscape by students Brett Harris, Andrew D’Arcy, and Heidi Petersen, via Landscape Architecture Magazine].

Not all the news coming out of Milwaukee involves misguided highway megaprojects or tax-funded crony capitalism—though there is that.

For example, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker—confusing an earlier generation’s urban mistakes with how a city is meant to function—has been plowing billions of dollars’ worth of taxpayer money into “freeway megaprojects” for which “the pricetag got so big that leaders from his own party rejected his plan as fiscally irresponsible, leaving the state budget in limbo,” Politico reports:

As the state has shifted resources into freeway megaprojects, 71 percent of [Wisconsin’s] roads are in mediocre or poor condition, according to federal data. Fourteen percent of its bridges are structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, which is actually better than the national average. Walker and his fellow Republicans have killed plans for light rail, commuter rail, high-speed rail, and dedicated bus lanes on major highways, so there is almost no public transportation connecting Milwaukee to its suburbs, intensifying divisions in one of the nation’s most racially, economically and politically segregated metropolitan areas. Yet Walker, who is running for president as a staunch fiscal conservative, has pushed a $250 million-per-mile plan to widen Interstate 94 between the Marquette and the Zoo despite fierce local opposition.

If that sounds both avoidable and unfortunate, consider the fact that “Walker also killed a ‘Complete Streets’ program that pushed road builders to accommodate bicyclists and pedestrians.”

[Images: (top) Milwaukee’s Marquette interchange, nearly the same size as the city it cuts through; (bottom) Milwaukee before the interchange. Images via Politico].

At the same time, Walker has also “championed a high-profile proposal to spend a quarter of a billion dollars of taxpayer money to help finance a new Milwaukee Bucks arena—all while pushing to slash roughly the same amount from state funding for higher education,” the International Business Times reports.

But, hey, why does Wisconsin need universities when everyone can just go to an NBA game? Not that benefitting the public is even Walker’s goal: “One of those who stands to benefit from the controversial initiative is a longtime Walker donor and Republican financier who has just been appointed by the governor to head his presidential fundraising operation.”

In any case, an interesting landscape test-project is currently underway in Milwaukee, called the “BaseTern” program.

As the city explains it, a “BaseTern” is “an underground stormwater management or rainwater harvesting structure created from the former basement of an abandoned home that has been slated for demolition.” Why is the city doing this?

By using abandoned basements, the City saves the cost of demolition on these structures (filing the basement and grading the surface) and on excavation for the new structure. In addition, BaseTerns provide significant stormwater storage capacity on a single site, the equivalent of up to 600 rain barrels.

The result, the city is keen to add, is “not an open pit. Rather a BaseTern is a covered structure, which is covered with topsoil and grass, and will appear the same as conventional vacant lot.”

In their July 2015 issue, Landscape Architecture Magazine explained that this is, in fact, “the world’s first such system.” Conceived—and actually trademarked—by a city official named Erick Shambarger, the idea was inspired by a GIS-fueled discovery that the worst flooding in the city always “occurred in neighborhoods with high rates of foreclosures. The city controls roughly 900 foreclosed properties, many of which it plans to demolish. Shambarger figured the city could preserve the basement structure and put it to use.”

[Images: Two BaseTern design diagrams, taken from Milwaukee’s “Vacant Basements for Stormwater Management Feasibility Study“].

While there is something metaphorically unsettling in the idea that parts of a blighted, financially underwater neighborhood might soon literally be underwater—transformed into a kind of urban sponge for the rest of Milwaukee—the notion that the city can discover in its own economic misfortune a possible new engineering approach for dealing with seasonal flooding and super-storms is an inspiring thing to see.

The BaseTern program also potentially suggests a stopgap measure for coastal cities set to face rising sea levels well within the lifetimes of the coming generation.

In the all but inevitable managed retreat from the coast that seems set to kick off both en masse and in earnest by midcentury—something that is already happening in New York City, post-Sandy—perhaps the subterranean ruins of old neighborhoods left behind can be temporarily repurposed as minor additions to a broader coastal program intent on reducing flooding for residents further inland.

Before, of course, those underground voids—former guest bedrooms, dens, man caves, she sheds, and basements—are inundated for good.

Read more about BaseTerns over at Landscape Architecture Magazine.

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).

The Annals of Weather Warfare

[Image: Kurt, the Nazi weather station, via Beachcombing].

My morning began with the fascinating story of Kurt, a forgotten Nazi weather station installed on the coast of Labrador during World War II that was only rediscovered in 1981. From a long article by Murray Sager:

Wetterfunkgerat Land 26 (code name “Kurt“) consisted of ten canisters, one for the recording instruments, another for the 10-metre antenna and the others for the world’s first Ni-cad batteries. There was a second mast for an anemometer and wind vane. These automatic stations were designed to broadcast temperature, wind speed and direction, air pressure and humidity in coded 120-second broadcasts every three hours and were designed to operate for six months. The Germans had also developed automatic weather buoys which were normally submerged but surfaced to record and broadcast before re-submerging. They had a designed “life” of nine months, and some were still operating into 1946. “Kurt” however had a short life, falling silent after only a couple of broadcasts. The Germans were unable to return to repair it or to place a planned second station on Labrador.

From here, it becomes something out of a Jules Verne novel:

The station’s existence might have remained unknown. However, the son of the meteorologist attached to the U-boat [that originally installed Kurt], while going through his lather’s papers after his death, found photographs of a barren rock and snow covered coastline that he could not identify. He contacted Franz Selinger, a retired Siemens engineer who was writing a history of the company (Siemens had built the automatic stations). The photos were tentatively identified and on a Canadian Coast Guard patrol along the coast of Labrador they were used to match the present day shoreline, and the remains of the station were found.

The blog post where I first read the story suggests that weather warfare would make for an amazing book—as it happens, much of James Fleming’s recent Fixing the Sky: The Checkered History of Weather and Climate Control is about exactly that.

In a fantastic paper called “The Climate Engineers,” for instance, originally published in the Wilson Quarterly, Fleming quotes General George C. Kenney, former head of the Allied Strategic Air Command: Kenney once declared that “the nation which first learns to plot the paths of air masses accurately and learns to control the time and place of precipitation will dominate the globe”—first-strike meteorology, perhaps. Fleming goes on to describe hallucinatory military visions of a “perfectly accurate machine forecast combined with a paramilitary rapid deployment force” that could annihilate all enemies—a Global Weather Corps, so to speak, flying ahead of the storm winds that it itself would generate.

In any case, read Beachcombing and Murray Sager for more about this abandoned Nazi weather station in the Allied Arctic.

Shelved in the Sky

I couldn’t resist this photo of a man blown off his feet by high winds on the British coast.

[Image: Photo by Steve Poole/Rex Features, via the Guardian].

How could we take better spatial advantage of meteorological situations like this, I wonder, whether that means designing parachute-like clothing lines for weekend air-surfing or perhaps manufacturing perfectly weighted hovering objects so that we could shelve things in the air, stationary but airborne, even whole rooms lifting off the ground to pause, several feet above the surface of the earth, looking out over the battered sea?

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).

The B-flat Range

[Image: Jackie Dee Grom, Antarctic ventifacts. From Cabinet].

Katabatic Winds

In the current issue of Cabinet Magazine, Jackie Dee Grom introduces us to ventifacts, or “geologic formations shaped by the forces of wind.”
Jackie was a member of the 2004 National Science Foundation’s Long-Term Ecological Research project in Antarctica, during which she took beautiful photographs of ventifactual geology – three of which were reproduced in Cabinet. (These are my own scans).

“The McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica,” she writes, “are home to one of the most extreme environments in the world – a polar desert blasted by ferocious winds, deprived of all but minimal rain, and beset by a mean annual temperature of negative twenty degrees Celsius.”

It is there, in the Antarctic Dry Valleys, that “gravity-driven winds pour off the high polar plateau, attaining speeds of up to two hundred kilometers per hour.”

In the grip of these aeolian forces, sand and small pebbles hurl through the air, smashing into the volcanic rocks that have fallen from the valley walls, slowly prying individual crystals from their hold, and sculpting natural masterworks over thousands of years. The multi-directional winds in this eerie and isolated wasteland create ventifacts of an exceptional nature, gouged with pits and decorated with flowing flutes and arching curves.

In his recent book Terra Antarctica: Looking into the Emptiest Continent, landscape theorist and travel writer of extreme natural environments William Fox describes similar such ventifacts as having been “completely hollowed out by the wind into fantastic eggshell-thin shapes.”

The “cavernous weathering” of multi-directional Antarctic winds – as fast as hurricanes, and filled with geologic debris – can “reduce a granite boulder the size of a couch into sand within 100,000 years.”

[Image: Jackie Dee Grom, Antarctic ventifacts. From Cabinet].

The B-flat Range

A part of me, however, can’t help but re-imagine these weird and violent geologies as sonic landmarks, or accidental musical instruments in the making. You hear them before you see them, as they scream with polar tempests.

A common theme on BLDGBLOG is the idea that natural landscapes could be transformed over time into monumental sound-generation machines. I’ve often thought it would be well worth the effort, for instance, if – in the same way that Rome has hundreds of free public fountains to fill the water bottles of thirsty tourists – London could introduce a series of audio listening posts: iPod-friendly masts anchored like totem poles throughout the city, in Trafalgar Square, Newington Green, the nave of St. Pancras Old Church, outside the Millennium Dome.

You show up with your headphones, plug them in – and the groaning, amplified, melancholic howl of church foundations and over-used roadways, the city’s subterranean soundtrack, reverbed twenty-four hours a day through contact mics into the headsets of greater London – greets you in tectonic surround-sound. London Orbital, soundtracking itself in automotive drones that last whole seasons at a time.

In any case, looking at photos of ventifacts I’m led to wonder if the entirety of Antarctica could slowly erode over millions of years into a musical instrument the size of a continent. The entire Transantarctic Range carved into flutes and oboes, frigid columns of air blasting like Biblical trumpets – earth tubas – into the sky. The B-flat Range. Somewhere between a Futurist noise-symphony and a Rube Goldberg device made of well-layered bedrock.

Where the design of musical instruments and landscape architecture collide.

Mt_Sill-ferrar_dolerites[Image: From a truly spectacular collection of Antarctic images at Ross Sea Info].

Flocks of birds in Patagonia hear the valleys rumble, choked and vibrating with every inland storm, atonal chords blaring like fog horns for a thousand of miles. Valve Mountains. Global wind systems change, coiling through hundreds of miles of ventifactual canyons and coming out the other end, turned round upon themselves, playing that Antarctic instrument till it’s eroded beneath the sea.

In his ultimately disappointing but still wildly imaginative novella, At the Mountains of Madness, H.P. Lovecraft writes about a small Antarctic expeditionary team that stumbles upon an alien city deep in the continent’s most remote glacial valleys. It is a city “of no architecture known to man or to human imagination, with vast aggregations of night-black masonry embodying monstrous perversions of geometrical laws.” Its largest structures are “sometimes terraced or fluted, surmounted by tall cylindrical shafts here and there bulbously enlarged and often capped with tiers of thinnish scalloped disks.”

Even better, “[a]ll of these febrile structures seemed knit together by tubular bridges crossing from one to the other at various dizzy heights, and the implied scale of the whole was terrifying and oppressive in its sheer gigantism.”
More relevant to this post, of course, Lovecraft describes how the continent’s “barren” and “grotesque” landscape – as unearthly as it is inhuman – interacted with the polar wind:

Through the desolate summits swept ranging, intermittent gusts of the terrible antarctic wind; whose cadences sometimes held vague suggestions of a wild and half-sentient musical piping, with notes extending over a wide range, and which for some subconscious mnemonic reason seemed to me disquieting and even dimly terrible.

Perhaps his team of adventurers has just stumbled upon the first known peaks of the B-Flat Range…

Fer-Knobhd-frm-Sol-Rks-CP[Image: Again, from the fantastic collection of Antarctic images at Ross Sea Info].

[For something else also howling an eternal B-flat: “Astronomers in England have discovered a singing black hole in a distant cluster of galaxies. In the process of listening in, the team of astronomers not only heard the lowest sound waves from an object in the Universe ever detected by humans” – but they’ve discovered that it’s emitting, yes, B-flat].

Musicalizing the weather through landscape architecture

The idea of listening to a landscape – how to podcast a landscape, for instance – tends to be literally overlooked in favor of a site’s visual impact or even its smell. When I was in Greece a few years ago, for instance, hiking toward an abandoned village on Tilos, every step I took crushed wild onions, herbs, and different flowers, and a temporary envelope of scent, picked up by breezes, floated all around me as I walked uphill. I may not remember every single detail of what that path *looked* like – but I do remember how it *smelled*.
It was like hiking through salad.
In any case, you don’t often see people packing up the family car, or hopping onto a train, to tour Wales or the Green Mountains of Vermont so that they can listen to the hills – they’ll go out to look at autumn leaf colors, sure, or take photographs of spring wildflowers. But to go all the way to Wales so they can hear a particular autumn wind storm howling through the gorges, a storm that only lasts two days of every year? Specifically going somewhere to *listen to the landscape*.
Seasonal weather events and their sonic after-effects. The Great November Moan.
All of which brings me to the idea of sound mirrors.


Musicalizing a weather system through landscape architecture.
BLDGBLOG here proposes a series of sound mirrors to be built in a landscape with regular, annual wind phenomena. A distant gully, moaning at 2am every second week in October due to northern winds from Canada, has its low, droning, cliff-created reverb carefully echoed back up a chain of sound mirrors to supply natural soundscapes for the sleeping residents of nearby towns.
Or a crevasse that actually makes no sound at all has a sound mirror built nearby, which then amplifies and redirects the ambient air movements, coaxing out a tone – but only for the first week of March. Annually.
Landscape as saxophone.


It’s a question of interacting with the earth’s atmosphere through human geotechnical constructions. Through sound mirrors.
What you’d need: 1) Detailed meteorological charts of a region’s annual wind-flow patterns. 2) Sound mirrors. 3) A very large arts grant.
You could then musicalize the climate.
With exactly placed and arranged sound mirrors atop a mesa, for instance, deep inside a system of canyons – whether that’s in the Peak District or Utah’s Canyonlands National Park – or even in Rajasthan, or western Afghanistan – you could interact with the earth’s atmosphere to create music for two weeks every year, amplifying the natural sounds of seasonal air patterns.
People would come, camp out, check into hotels, open all their windows – and just listen to the landscaped echoes.


A few questions arise: in this context, does Stonehenge make any sounds? What if – and this is just a question – it was built not as a prehistoric astronomical device but as a *landscape wind instrument*? You’d be out there wandering around the Cotswolds, thinking oh – christ, it’s 5000 years ago and we’re lost, but: what’s that? I hear Stonehenge… And then you locate yourself.
Sonic landmark.
This raises the possibility of building smaller versions of these sound mirrors in urban neighborhoods so that, for instance, Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg sounds different than Mitte, which sounds different than Kreuzberg – which sounds different than South Kensington, which is different than Gramercy Park… Etc.
You’d always know which district of the city you were in – even which city you were in, full stop – based on what the wind sounded like.
(Which reminds me of another idea: that, to attract people to a city without much going for it, you could *flavor the water supply*: make it taste like Doritos, for instance, and then sell that on huge billboards: buy your new home in Detroit, the water tastes like Doritos… the water tastes like tofurky…).
Second: is there a sonic signature to the US occupation of Baghdad? And I don’t mean rumbling Hummers and airplane engines, I mean what if all those Bremer walls –


– generate sounds during passing wind storms? All the American military bases of Iraq moaning at 3am as desert breezes pass by.
What does the occupation *sound like*?
A sonic taxonomy of architectural forms could begin…