Glacier / Island / Storm

I thought it might be fun to post the course description and design brief for a course I’ll be teaching this semester at Columbia.

[Image: Photo via the Alfred Wegener Institute].

The idea behind the studio is to look at naturally occurring processes and forms—specifically, glaciers, islands, and storms—and to ask how these might be subject to architectural re-design.

We will begin our investigations by looking at three specific case-studies, including the practical techniques and concerns behind each. This research will then serve as the basis from which studio participants will create original glacier/island/storm design proposals.

GLACIER: For centuries, a vernacular tradition of constructing artificial glaciers in the Himalayas has been used to create reserves of ice from which freshwater can be reliably obtained during dry years. This is the glacier as non-electrical ice reserve, in other words; some of these structures have even received funding as international relief projects—for instance, by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program in Pakistan. Interestingly, the artificial glacier here becomes a philanthropic pursuit, falling somewhere between Architecture For Humanity and a sustainable water-bank.

Through an examination of glacier-building techniques, water requirements, and the thermal behavior of ice, we will both refine and re-imagine designs for self-sustaining artificial glaciers, for the ultimate purpose of storing fresh water.

But what specific tools and spatial techniques might this require? Further, what purposes beyond drought relief might an artificial glacier serve? There are myths, for instance, of Himalayan villagers building artificial glaciers to protect themselves against invasion, and perhaps we might even speculate that water shortages in Los Angeles could be relieved with a series of artificial glaciers maintained by the city’s Department of Water and Power at the headwaters of the Colorado River…

ISLAND: Building artificial islands using only sand and fill is relatively simple, but how might such structures be organically grown?

In the ocean south of Japan is a complex of reefs just slightly below the surface of the water; Japan claims that these reefs are, in fact, islands. This is no minor distinction: if the international community supports this claim, Japan would not only massively extend its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), complete with seabed-mining and fishing rights, but it would also block China from accessing those same resources. This would, however, also limit the ability of Chinese warships to patrol the region—and so the U.S. has publicly backed Japan’s territorial claim (China does not).

Okinawan scientists have thus been developing genetically-modified species of coral with the express idea of using these species to “grow” the reefs into a small but internationally recognized archipelago: the Okinotori Islands. Think of it as bio-technology put to use in the context of international sovereignty and the U.N. Law of the Sea.

The stakes are high—but, our studio will ask, by way of studying multiple forms of reef-building as well as materials such as Biorock, where might other such island-growing operations be politically and environmentally useful? Further, how might the resulting landforms be most interestingly designed? Assisted by a class visit from marine biologist Thomas Goreau, one-time collaborator of architect Wolf Hilbertz, we will look at the construction techniques and materials necessary for building wholly new artificial landforms.

STORM: For hundreds of years, a lightning storm called the Relampago del Catatumbo has flashed in the sky above Venezuela’s coastal Lake Maracaibo. The perfect mix of riverine topography, lake-borne humidity, and rain forest air currents has produced what can be described, with only slight exaggeration, as a permanent storm.

This already fascinating anecdote takes on interesting spatial design implications when we read, for instance, that Shanghai city officials have expressed alarm at the inadvertent amplification of wind speeds through their city as more and more skyscrapers are erected there—demonstrating that architecture sometimes has violent climatological effects. Further, Beijing and Moscow both have recently declared urban weather control an explicit aim of their respective municipal governments—but who will be in charge of designing this new weather, and what role might architects and landscape architects play in its creation?

We will be putting these—and many other—examples of weather control together with urban, architectural, and landscape design studies in an attempt to produce atmospheric events. For instance, could we redesign Manhattan’s skyline to create a permanent storm over the city—or could we rid the five boroughs of storms altogether? And under what circumstances—drought-relief in the American southwest or Gulf Coast hurricane-deflection—might our efforts be most practically useful?

• • •

The studio will be divided into three groups—one designing “glaciers,” one designing “islands,” one designing “storms.” Each group will mix vernacular building technologies with what sounds like science fiction to explore the fine line between architectural design and the amplified cultivation of natural processes. Importantly, this will be done not simply for the sake of doing so (although there will be a bit of that…), but to address much larger questions of international sovereignty, regional drought, global climate change, and more.

9 thoughts on “Glacier / Island / Storm”

  1. This blog is always very interesting, especially when thinking of trying to build naturally occurring events.

    I just looked up the Relampago del Catatumbo, and was fascinated to learn it is probably the highest producer of ozone.

    What if we discovered and recreated the exact variables needed to produce such large lightning storms to rebuild our ozone?

    I want to see how the UN would handle such a proposal, and who would or wouldn't be up for it.

    I look forward to your posts!

  2. There's already lots of artificial hydrology at the headwaters of the Colorado River

    Around the turn of the century, several private companies built a complex system of ditches along the sides of mountains to collect water that was being 'wasted' on the aquifer and divert it into reservoirs, from which they would sell water rights to people downstream, using public rivers as the transport. Adding to the craziness, all of this was built on government land that is now Rocky Mountain National Park, and grandfathered in.

    It's hydrological seigniorage!

    The Grand Ditch is one of the major ones, more are documented in a book from the period (categorized as 'Juvenile Nonfiction'!)

    Shortly afterward the Laramie-Poudre Tunnel was built to reclaim water being 'wasted' on Wyoming, which later sued but lost.

    I spent a summer up there in Gould, CO — where my Uncle used to have a longtime seasonal job that involved clearing the ditches and tunnel of detritus before the snowmelt in spring, and maintaining them through the season. They had a wild multi-day annual party at the isolated Tunnel base camp, which was powered by solar panels hooked up to diesel-electric locomotive batteries.

    There are also bigger more modern diversions like the Colorado-Big Thompson Project, but they're all public works, not odd legacies of robber-barons applying their railway business model to water.

  3. As a prosepctive Columbia M. Arch student (currently applying for Fall 2010) I would be so excited to have this course as a studio. Good luck with it and keep us updated!

  4. Glacier / Island / Storm / … Beneficial Climate Change?

    In 1938 John Bradfield (the engineer of the Sydney Harbour Bridge) proposed to flood a large inland basin of Australia, called Lake Eyre.
    The 'Bradfield scheme' was designed to provide irrigation to large tracts of inland Australia but, more interestingly, it soon became seen as a possible 'mechanism for promoting favourable climate change across a vast area'. A 'beneficial' climate change.
    It was though at the time that 'a permanent increase in the area of the interior covered by surface water — possibly including a permanently filled Lake Eyre — would raise the humidity of the atmosphere through evaporation, leading to a higher average rainfall across the inland.'

    And whilst the science has proven Bradfields theory wrong, the concept is just as facinating today.
    As you rightly point out, the potential to generate desirable weather events with a combination of hydraulic engineer, geographic surveying and new technolgies (such as cloud seeding) leads to your question, who will be in charge of designing this new weather, and what role might architects and landscape architects play?

    Have fun with the studios! And don't forget to reference Supermans 'Fortress of Solitude'.

  5. Here's an example that might cross the boundaries of your course a bit.

    In Niagara Falls, a number of high hotels have been built over the past few years along the Canadian side. This has changed the prevailing winds. In winter, these winds would blow the mist from the falls towards the trees, which would become coated in ice, and were often mishapened and broken by the weight of the ice.
    With the change of winds, there is less ice deposited, and the trees appear to be taller, with fewer broken branches. Is this beneficial? Is some other life form affected by the change?

  6. diamon, interesting story! On a vaguely related note, there is also evidence that the large outdoor pond at the Bellagio in Las Vegas has, through evaporation, altered the humidity and, thus, the local climate on that section of the Strip.

    An extravagant water feature has—presumably by accident—become a minor example of geoengineering.

  7. This is really very interesting that you are pursuing this topic and I look forward to following the conversation as it develops. I am straddling two approaches to this topic right now in my own work. One side is my architecture studio taught by Amy Anderson who is a product/former faculty of Columbia. The other side is the natural disaster training center which I am on staff with here in Hawaii. Right now I am developing course work related to the subject of climate resilient cities which the World Bank recently released a report on. The focus of the disaster center is the use of urban planning and architecture to mitigate and adapt to extreme weather events caused by climate change. So unexpectedly I find myself simultaneously involved in both highly conceptual and very practical approaches to this subject.

    Reading some of the previous comments regarding the merit of such conceptual approaches it reminded me of something written in the very first edition of Volume:

    "The architect is an attractive but endangered species. Despite the media's current fascination with our biggest names, the expiration date of the idea of the artful builder has long passed. The discipline will become splendidly irrelevant, if not extinct, unless new modes of engagement are cultivated. Cherishing the ancient conviction that the architect is first and foremost a public intellectual, an activist synthesizer of diverse forms of knowledge, an eloquent commentator on the world, our schools must go beyond themselves. The figure of the designer has to be redesigned – now.

    The architect's gift is to offer reflections upon shelter, turning the resolution of practical demands into an interactive discourse. Schools tend to underestimate the unique intelligence of the architect, seeing innovative, conceptual, technical, and aesthetic experimentation as a risky force to be entertained only after practical responsibility has been established. But it is the special responsibility of the architect to open the very concept of shelter to our most creative thinking. All the traditional forms of protection (structural, environmental, psychological, medical, legal, economic, historical, and moral) can and must become sites for the most radical work."

    You got to love it!

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