Fossils of Lost Neighborhoods

[Image: Near Barren Island, Brooklyn, New York, via Google Maps].

I’ve always liked the story of Mary Anning, an amateur paleontologist who collected fossils along the cliffs of southwest England in the early to mid-1800s. Her work was greatly assisted by the coastal weather, as landslides, slumping, and severe storms helped to reveal the remains of extinct creatures in the rocks.

“Although she had an eye for fossils,” Christopher McGowan writes in The Dragon Seekers: How an Extraordinary Circle of Fossilists Discovered the Dinosaurs and Paved the Way for Darwin, “she could not find them until they had been exposed by weathering—an achingly slow process. But when wind and rain and frost and sun had done their work, she would find them, peeking through the surface. Others were buried so deeply in the cliffs that it would be aeons before they were ever discovered.”

I love the tantalizing prospect here of as-yet unknown forms of life still hiding in the cliffside, awaiting future landslides or heavy rain, and the imaginative possibilities this implies—from straight-forward tales of scientific discovery to darker, H.P. Lovecraft-inflected horror fiction. A catastrophic future storm strikes Cornwall, and, as the townspeople walk stunned through the wreckage of their high street the next morning, they can’t miss the massive bulk of some thing “peeking through the surface” of a nearby cliff.

[Image: The cliffs at Lyme Regis, via Wikipedia].

I was reminded of Mary Anning again this morning while reading about a place called Barren Island—“whose name apparently comes not from its long association with desolation but from the Dutch word for ‘bears’”—a coastal neighborhood in New York City that was demolished by the freeway-obsessed Robert Moses in the 1930s.

Anthropologist Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City, took some students to visit the site, explaining to The New Yorker that fragments of a now-lost neighborhood keep reappearing on the beach.

That same beach, of course, is well-known for its weathered glass bottles, but, we read, “Visitors usually assume that the refuse has washed up from the body of water still known as Dead Horse Bay, but most of it has actually washed down, from an eroding bank above the sand. ‘The bank is the outermost edge of a landfill,’ Nagle explained. ‘It keeps receding, and stuff keeps appearing.’”

Awesomely, Nagle points out that you can at least partially piece together the history an erased neighborhood from these traces:

Some of the exposed material, Nagle believes, originated in a Brooklyn neighborhood that Moses levelled to make way for one of his road-building projects, more than a decade after Floyd Bennett Field had been supplanted by LaGuardia Airport. “We don’t know which neighborhood,” she said, “but we do know the period, because when we find remnants of newspapers the dates are between early February and mid-March of 1953.” The beach is a window into that era. She went on, “I tell people to imagine that they’re a props master for a film about a working-class Brooklyn family in 1953, and they have to fill their home with goods that would have been part of their everyday lives—shampoo bottles and cooking tools and car parts and flooring and makeup and children’s toys and furniture and electrical outlets. People say the beach is covered with garbage, but it’s actually covered with the material traces of homes that people had to abandon when Moses forced them out.”

Nagle, you might say, is a kind of Mary Anning of the Anthropocene, collecting the fossils of forgotten neighborhoods as the land in which they’re buried erodes away.

Parking For Gold: On the Frontlines with America’s Best Valet Parkers

[Image: Valets stretch at the National Valet Olympics in Palm Springs; photo by BLDGBLOG].

When I first heard about the National Valet Olympics, I knew it was something I’d want to see someday. The nation’s best valet parkers gathering together in a parking lot somewhere—in Chicago, in Miami Beach, in Palm Springs—to wage spatial warfare against one another, battling head-to-head over who has the best parking technique? It sounded like something J.G. Ballard would come up with while playing Settlers of Catan.

[Image: Getting ready for the National Valet Olympics; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The very idea that there could be an organized event for competitive valet parking was fascinating to me, an unexpected variation on a peculiarly American narrative of the upstart athlete, the self-taught Natural.

The games evoked images of men and women in small towns throughout the United States dragging themselves out of bed before dawn to practice three-point turns and parallel parking in under-lit lots, of kids growing up trading sports cards featuring portraits of valet parkers, of autographed posters hanging on the walls of rental car facilities drawing consumers’ attention to these legends of American emptiness.

Who among us can master the modern lot, its open geometry, its clean lines, its spatial potential? Why be LeBron James when you can be the world’s best valet parker?

[Image: Advanced Parking Concepts valets stretch their legs at the National Valet Olympics; photo by BLDGBLOG].

The Olympics were as much as about a niche athletic pursuit as they were about everyday transportation infrastructure, I thought, and I had my calendar marked for more than a year leading up to the 2017 games.

[Image: Packing trunks at the National Valet Olympics in Palm Springs; photo by BLDGBLOG].

I was finally able to attend the Olympics in person for The Atlantic, and the resulting article just went up online.

Held in Palm Springs, the games introduced me to a valet who grew up in a Syrian refugee camp, as well as one who volunteers with the California Army National Guard; I heard the story of a regional manager who once SCUBA-dived through a flooded parking lot outside New York in order to check on clients’ cars, and I followed one team in particular, Advanced Parking Concepts (APC) from Verona, New Jersey, on their most recent attempt to win it all. Taking the games seriously, APC got into combat shape by running wind sprints up the same New Jersey hill where Herschel Walker once trained.

[Image: The stage is set at the National Valet Olympics in Palm Springs; photo by BLDGBLOG].

If this sounds even remotely interesting—transportation infrastructure as a venue for personal athletic achievement—then consider reading the article in full over at The Atlantic, and, if you’re a valet parker, please be in touch! I heard so many good stories while writing this article, and I’d love to hear more.

[Image: APC valets huddle during the National Valet Olympics; photo by BLDGBLOG].

Speculative Mineralogy

[Image: An otherwise unrelated image of crystal twinning, via Geology IN].

It’s hard to resist a headline like this: writing for Nature, Shannon Hall takes us inside “the labs that forge distant planets here on Earth.”

This is the world of exogeology—the geology of other planets—“a research area that is bringing astronomers, planetary scientists and geologists together to explore what exoplanets might look like, geologically speaking. For many scientists, exogeology is a natural extension of the quest to identify worlds that could support life.”

To understand how other planets are made, exogeologists are synthesizing those planets in miniature in the earthbound equipment in their labs. Think of it as an extreme example of landscape modeling. “To gather information to feed these models,” Hall writes, “geologists are starting to subject synthetic rocks to high temperatures and pressures to replicate an exoplanet’s innards.”

Briefly, it’s easy to imagine an interesting jewelry line—or architectural materials firm—using fragments of exoplanets in their work, crystals grown as representations of other worlds embedded in your garden pavement. Or fuse the ashes of your loved ones with fragments of hypothetical exoplanets. “Infinite memorialization,” indeed.

In any case, recall that, back in 2015, geologist Robert Hazen “predict[ed] that Earth has more than 1,500 undiscovered minerals and that the exact mineral diversity of our planet is unique and could not be duplicated anywhere in the cosmos.” As Hazen claimed, “Earth’s mineralogy is unique in the cosmos.” If we are, indeed, living in mineralogically unique circumstances, then this would put an end to the fantasy of finding a geologically “Earth-like” planet. But the search goes on.

This is not the only example of producing hypothetical mineral models of other worlds. In 2014, for example, ScienceDaily reported that “scientists for the first time have experimentally re-created the conditions that exist deep inside giant planets, such as Jupiter, Uranus and many of the planets recently discovered outside our solar system.” Incredibly, this included compressing diamond to a concentration denser than lead, using a giant laser.

Other worlds, produced here on Earth. Exoplanetary superdiamonds.

Read more over at Nature.

(Nature article spotted via Nathalia Holt).

Ghost Reefs

[Image: 18th-century nautical chart by George Gauld, via Geographical].

A theme that has near-universal appeal for me is when old maps reveal the presence of something in the landscape that people have otherwise overlooked or forgotten. It could be a lost road deep in the mountain forests of Vermont, for example, or it could a whole series of missing reefs off the coast of Florida.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers led by Loren McClenachan at Colby College in Maine found what they called “ghost reefs” in old nautical charts drawn by an 18th-century British surveyor named George Gauld. When the team compared Gauld’s maps with modern satellite images of the same landscape, “a stark picture of shrinking coral emerged: Half of the reefs recorded in the 1770s are missing from the satellite data,” the Washington Post reported.

There are limitations to the approach, of course: “It’s impossible to tell whether the [18th-century] surveyors distinguished between living and dead coral, for example, or how long the reefs had persisted,” the Post writes, but the idea of finding ghost geographic forms in old maps is too evocative not to mention here.

Planetary Scale

[Image: “CHRONOS: The Space-Time Planetarium,” proposed by Drew Heller, Isabella Marcotulli, and Ibrahim Salman, via Eleven Magazine].

With news of “the largest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere and the fourth largest in the world” opening in New Jersey, I’m reminded of a design competition I meant to post about earlier this year.

A few months ago, Eleven Magazine hosted a quick competition to rethink the planetarium. It’s a great design brief: Eleven’s editors asked “if architecture itself could become—once again—a tool for experiencing and understanding space. How can architecture engage with and enhance today’s renewed age of space exploration and discovery? What does the next generation of planetariums look like?”

You can click around on the various entries here, but a few seemed worth mentioning.

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

The “Microsphere” proposal, for example, entails “a network of little planetariums scattered all over the world.” As the title suggests, each planetarium would be a small, single-occupancy sphere acting as a meditative space for viewing, studying, or thinking about the cosmos.

It’s an idea that only suffers from the unnecessary stipulation that these should be built directly next to existing, often very ancient sites of star observation, including Stonehenge. Not only does Stonehenge not need this sort of thing parked next to it, but installing these out in the suburbs, on city streets, on the roofs of low-income housing units, or even hidden in thickets in state parks would seem to be a much more interesting way for these structures to bring astronomy to the masses.

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

Another project is interesting for its attempt to reconceive what “space” really is and how a planetarium is meant to represent or engage with it.

[Image: “CHRONOS: The Space-Time Planetarium,” proposed by Drew Heller, Isabella Marcotulli, and Ibrahim Salman, via Eleven Magazine].

Acting as a “space-time planetarium,” a project called CHRONOS would allow visitors to “perceive astronomical scenes at different rates… through a labyrinth of six architectural techniques that invite the user to abandon earthly notions of space and time.”

The building thus requires a “space-time diagram.”

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

Whether or not the resulting building would actually resemble what the designers have proposed here, it sounds awesome. “The planetarium grounds users through abstract learning as they navigate the entanglement while warping their perception of space-time,” they write. “While traveling through a series of architectural space-time scenarios, users are enlightened with astronomical scenes that transcend human perception.”

[Image: “Microsphere” planetarium proposal by Christian Gabbiani and Elisa Porro, via Eleven Magazine].

As you’d expect, not every entry is particularly interesting and there are some real doozies in there, but it’s worth checking out. While you’re there, though, check out the other competitions—some still ongoing—that Eleven has hosted.

Typographic Ecosystems

[Image: From Google Maps].

Many weeks ago, after listening to the podcast S-Town, I got to looking around on Google Maps for the now-legendary hedge maze designed by the podcast’s protagonist, John B. McLemore. Other people, of course, had already found it.

As these things always go, however, I began panning around the map of the region, following waterways and forests to various places, zooming in on interesting geological features and more, and eventually found myself looking at a strange patch of forest on the Arkansas/Missouri border. In a place called the Big Lake Wildlife Management Area, huge glyphs have been cut into the trees, in repetitive shapes that appear to be letters or runes.

There are distended Ss, upside-down Us that resemble hoofprints, cross-like forms that could be lower-case ts or + signs, and simply large, empty blocks. The figures repeat across the forest in no apparent pattern, but they are clearly artificial. I figured these were a property-marking system of some sort, or perhaps some kind of recreational landscape, leading to a series of unusually elaborate hunting blinds; but they could also have been—who knows—an optical calibration system for satellites, cut deep in the woods, or perhaps, if we let our imaginations roam, some secret government design agency performing unregulated typographic experiments in the forest… Perhaps it was really just SETI.

Then I stopped thinking about them.

[Image: From Google Maps].

When I mentioned these to my friend Wayne the other night, however, he was quick to dig up the real explanation: “the odd shapes are part of a habitat restoration project,” local news channel KAIT reported back in 2013.

“In wildlife management, you know, disturbance is a good thing,” biologist Lou Hausman explained to KAIT. “When you put sunlight to the forest floor, that’s one of the basic components of habitat management. It stimulates growth in the understorage and stimulates growth on the ground.”

The different shapes or letters were thus chosen for research purposes, the goal being to learn which ones produced the best “edge effects” for plants and wildlife on the ground. If the S shape allowed more efficient access to sunlight, in other words, well, then S shapes would be used in the future to help stimulate forest recovery due to their particular pattern of sunlight.

Think of it as ecosystem recovery through typography—or, heliocentric graphic design as a means for returning forests to health. Kerning as a wildlife management concern.

This perhaps suggests a unique variation on artist Katie Holten’s “Tree Alphabet” project, but one in which alphabetic incisions into a forest canopy are done not for their literary power but for their strategic ecosystem effects. Golem-like sections of wilderness, brought back to health through language.

(Thanks to Wayne Chambliss for his champion-league Googling skills).

Cabin Fever

[Image: “Shear House” by STPMJ; photo by Song Yousub].

One more cabin! This one is designed by STPMJ architects for a site in South Korea.

[Image: “Shear House” by STPMJ; photo by Song Yousub].

Called “Shear House,” the project uses a shifted roof and angled interior walls to play with the geometric effect of each room. In the architects’ words, although the rooms “are rectangular in plan, walls are triangles, parallelograms, and trapezoids in elevation.”

[Image: “Shear House” by STPMJ; photo by Song Yousub].

As I’m simply posting a few projects I think are cool, you’ll find more information—including further photographs and plans—over at Dezeen.

Social Architecture

[Image: Photo by Haylie Chan & Zelig Fok, via Dezeen].

Students at the Yale School of Architecture have realized a really impressive residential project, noteworthy both for its refined appearance and for its social mission: intended to house local homeless families, the project kicks off “a five-year collaboration with Columbus House, a New Haven-based homelessness services provider.”

The two-family home is constructed from prefabricated units, and is “sited on a formerly vacant corner lot on Adeline Street” in New Haven. It includes “two units that are separated by a walkway, but under the same roof, and adorned with large windows that balance the needs of openness and privacy.”

[Image: Photo by Haylie Chan & Zelig Fok, via Dezeen].

As Dezeen explains, “The building was designed by students in the Jim Vlock First Year Building Project, a programme established in 1967. The course involves designing and building low-cost homes in New Haven, the city where Yale is located. First-year architecture students are required to participate in the programme as part of the school’s curriculum.” Here is a house from 2015, for example.

This particular structure is the first in what I understand to be a series of projects undertaken with funding and planning input from Columbus House. In a press release, the organization’s president remarked that their goal “is to end homelessness, and we do that by getting people housed… Every unit that we add toward the affordable housing stock in New Haven helps us come closer to that goal. We are delighted with the house on Adeline Street and with the relationship with Yale School of Architecture that has grown out of this project.”

[Image: Photo by Haylie Chan & Zelig Fok, via Dezeen].

On the most basic level, it’s exciting to see a student project inspired by such a clear social mission, especially one that has also resulted in a building I’d be thrilled to live in myself.

Read more courtesy of Yale University or Dezeen.

Conversion Moment

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins, based on a photo by Stijnstijl Fotografie].

While we’re looking at work by Zecc Architects, it’s worth checking out their proposed renovation of a water tower in Utrecht.

A circular room with panoramic views of the city, and a modern fireplace in the center? Yes, please.

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins].

I even love where the tower’s original brick core is revealed, despite appearing in something as mundane as a restaurant.

[Image: Proposal for a converted residential water tower in Utrecht, by Zecc Architects; rendering by 3D Studio Prins].

As a very brief aside, meanwhile, one of many things that remains amazing to me about the architectural world today is that these sorts of buildings—grandiose brick megastructures, from water towers to old tobacco warehouses to classic New York brownstones—are immensely popular as domestic renovations or large-scale residential conversions, but they otherwise seem to be completely beyond the pale for architects to consider designing from scratch in the present day. Even when contemporary architects do take on such commissions, they seem to leave their creativity at the door.

As a former New Yorker, it always blew me away that incredible building stock existed in neighborhoods such as DUMBO—that is, huge warehouses featuring recessed arched windows, ornamented brick, and, at times, gorgeous exterior buttressing—or that even the most random online image search for historical warehouse districts pop up such incredible and evocative buildings. Yet there seems to be no appetite, either amongst developers or architects, to explore what architects could do with these same styles and languages today.

Even just imagining a 21st-century brick super-warehouse (or circular tower) built from scratch in New York City—or Boston, or Bermondsey, or Hamburg—featuring modern interiors and finishes, and designed to avoid the headaches of older building stock, makes my head swoon, and there is no doubt in my mind that elaborate, architecturally complex brick megastructures could be realized today without falling into kitsch or postmodern quotation. And there is also, in fact, no inherent reason why creating brickwork residential super-projects should lead to an emerging financial ecosystem for absent investors in the process.

But, hey: I’m not a real estate developer and I have no way to change the game.

Shuttered

[Image: Cabin by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel; photo by Laura Mallonee, courtesy Dwell].

Here’s another cabin, this time by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel for a client in the Netherlands.

[Image: Cabin by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel; photo by Laura Mallonee, courtesy Dwell].

“Building atop the foundation of a previous greenhouse was a cost-cutting measure,” according to Dwell; this “allowed the project to be considered a renovation and thereby qualify for a temporary tax reduction. Its traditional, gabled form also pays homage to the original structure.”

[Images: Cabin by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel; photos by Laura Mallonee, courtesy Dwell].

The shutters are awesome, I think, and the effect at night is otherworldly, like an inhabited lantern.

[Image: Cabin by Zecc Architects and Roel van Norel; photo by Laura Mallonee, courtesy Dwell].

For more photos of the project, check out Dwell or ArchDaily.

(I am under the impression that these photos were taken by Laura Mallonee, but the attribution at Dwell leaves this somewhat ambiguous; apologies if I have misattributed someone else’s work).

Lodge

[Image: The “Bjellandsbu” cabin, named after its client, by Snøhetta; photo by James Silverman, courtesy Snøhetta].

I have cabins, retreats, and small houses on the brain, and this remote Norwegian hunting lodge designed by Snøhetta, complete with green roof and local timber, is one of many recent projects that caught my eye.

[Image: “Bjellandsbu” by Snøhetta; photo by James Silverman, courtesy Snøhetta].

According to the architects, the structure is “accessible only by foot or horseback,” and apparently features enough bunk beds to sleep up to 21 people.

[Image: “Bjellandsbu” by Snøhetta; photo by James Silverman, courtesy Snøhetta].

While at first glance, you might think it’s a relic from a J.R.R. Tolkien-infused 1970s counterculture, it was actually completed in 2013.

[Image: “Bjellandsbu” by Snøhetta; photo by James Silverman, courtesy Snøhetta].

For more shots of the cabin in the wild, meanwhile, check out the #bjellandsbu hashtag on Instagram.

(All photos in this post by James Silverman, courtesy of Snøhetta).