For two closely related projects—one called L.A.T.B.D., produced for the USC Libraries, and the other called L.A. Recalculated, commissioned by the 2015 Chicago Architecture Biennial, both designed with Smout Allen—I wrote that Los Angeles could be approached bathymetrically.
Los Angeles is “less a city, in some ways, than it is a matrix of seismic equipment and geological survey tools used for locating, mapping, and mitigating the effects of tectonic faults. This permanent flux and lack of anchorage means that studying Los Angeles is more bathymetric, we suggest, than it is terrestrial; it is oceanic rather than grounded.”
[Image: Underground seismic counterweights act as pendulums, designed to stabilize Los Angeles from below; from L.A. Recalculated by Smout Allen and BLDGBLOG].
Because of seismic instability, in other words, the city should be thought of in terms of depths and soundings, not as a horizontal urban surface but as a volumetric space churning with underground forces analogous to currents and tides.
This bathymetric approach to dry land came to mind again when reading last month that the land of Southern California, as shown by a recent GPS study, is undergoing “constant large-scale motion.”
It is more like a slow ocean than it is solid ground, torqued and agitating almost imperceptibly in real-time.
“Constant large-scale motion has been detected at the San Andreas Fault System in Southern California,” we read, “confirming movement previously predicted by models—but never before documented. The discovery will help researchers better understand the fault system, and its potential to produce the next big earthquake.”
[Image: “Vertical velocities” along the San Andreas Fault; via Nature Geoscience].
This is true, of course, on a near-planetary scale, as plate tectonics are constantly pushing land masses into and away from one another like the slow and jagged shapes of an ice floe.
But the constant roiling motion of something meant to be solid is both scientifically fascinating and metaphorically rich—eliminating the very idea of being grounded or standing on firm ground—not to mention conceptually intriguing when put into the context of architectural design.
That is, if architecture is the design and fabrication of stationary structures, meant to be founded on solid ground, then this “constant large-scale motion” suggests that we should instead think of architecture, at least by analogy, more in terms of shipbuilding or even robotics. Architecture can thus be given an altogether different philosophical meaning, as a point of temporary orientation and solidity in a world of constant large-scale surges and flux.
Put another way, the ground we rely on has never been solid; it has always been an ocean, its motion too slow to perceive.