Lost Highways

[Image: Reviewing old property deeds and land surveys; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

A story I've been obsessed with since first learning about it back in 2008 is the problem of "ancient roads" in Vermont.

Vermont is unusual in that, if a road has been officially surveyed and, thus, added to town record books—even if that road was never physically constructed—it will remain legally recognized unless it has been explicitly discontinued.

[Image: More Granville property deeds; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

This means that roads surveyed as far back as the 1790s remain present in the landscape as legal rights of way—with the effect that, even if you cannot see this ancient road cutting across your property, it nonetheless persists, undercutting your claims to private ownership (the public, after all, has the right to use the road) and making it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain title insurance.

Faced with a rising number of legal disputes from homeowners, Vermont passed Act 178 back in 2006. Act 178 was the state's attempt to scrub Vermont's geography of these dead roads.

[Image: Geographic coordinates for lost roadways; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

The Act's immediate effects, however, were to kick off a rush of new research into the state's lost roadways.

This meant going back through property deeds and mortgage records, dating back to the late 18th-century, deciphering old handwriting, making sense of otherwise location-less survey coordinates, and then reconciling all this with on-the-ground geologic features or local landmarks.

[Image: Zooming into survey descriptions of rods and chains; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Not every town was enthusiastic about finding them, hoping instead that the old roads would simply disappear.

Other towns—and specific townspeople—responded with far more enthusiasm, as if finding an excuse to rediscover their own histories, the region's past, and the lives of the other families or settlers who once lived there.

Anything they found and officially submitted for inclusion on Vermont's state highway map would continue to exist as a state-recognized throughway; anything left undocumented, or specifically called out for discontinuance, would disappear, losings its status as a road and becoming mere landscape.

July 1, 2015, was the deadline, after which anything left undiscovered is meant to remain undiscovered.

[Image: Ancient road descriptions; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

I had an amazing opportunity to visit the tiny town of Granville, Vermont, ten days ago, where I met with a retired forester and self-enlisted local historian named Norman Arseneault.

Arseneault became so involved in the search for Granville's ancient roads that he is not only self-publishing an entire book documenting his quest, but he was also pointed out to me as an exemplar of rigor and organization by Johnathan Croft, chief of the Mapping Section at the Vermont Agency of Transportation (where there is an entire page dedicated to "Ancient Roads").

His hunt for old roads seems to fall somewhere between Robert Macfarlane's recent work and the old Western trail research of Glenn R. Scott.

[Image: "?????? Where is this road"; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

While I was there in Granville, Arseneault took me into the town vault, flipping back through nearly 225 years of local property deeds. We then hit the old forest roads in his pick-up truck, to hike many of the "ancient roads" his research had uncovered.

I wrote up the whole experience for The New Yorker, and I have to say it was one of the more interesting article research processes I've ever been involved with; check it out, if any of this sounds of interest.

It's worth pointing out, meanwhile, that the problem of "ancient roads" is not, in fact, likely to go away; the recent introduction of LiDAR data, on top of some confusingly written legal addenda, make it all but certain that other property owners will yet find long-forgotten public routes crossing their land, or that a future private development count still find its unbuilt plots placed squarely atop invisible roads made newly available to town use.

The hows and whys of this are, I hope, explained a bit more over at The New Yorker.

Slingshots of the Oceanic

[Image: A diagram of the elaborate loops and ribbons of self-intersecting movement allowed by gravity-assisted travel, in this case heading toward a comet; original artist unknown].

Gravity-assisted space travel is when you use the gravitational pull of one planet or other celestial body as a fuel-efficient way to "slingshot" yourself toward another, more distant goal, someplace you could not have reached without assistance, either in terms of your velocity or even your basic direction.

You head toward one place to get to another—or "by indirections find directions out," we might say.

These "gravity assists" can be pieced together to form almost a kind of invisible jungle gym, helping send probes into the outer solar system or even toward Mercury and the sun:
Voyager 2 famously used gravity assists to visit Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune in the late 1970s and 1980s. Cassini used two assists at Venus and one each at Earth and Jupiter in order to reach Saturn. New Horizons will arrive at Pluto in 2015 thanks to an assist at Jupiter. And Messenger used assists at Earth, Venus and three times at Mercury itself not to speed up, but to slow down enough to finally be captured by Mercury.
This can result in all sorts of insane weaving maneuvers, as objects can be made to loop stars, double back on themselves, veer off unpredictably, or even stop moving altogether, effectively parking themselves in space, as this GIF by David Shortt illustrates.

[Image: GIF by David Shortt, via The Planetary Society].

It's like gravitational judo: using the speed and mass of your opponent as a counterbalance to perform something extraordinary yourself. Or perhaps it's more like interplanetary spirography, where you could even loop-the-loop and slingshot your way between stars.

In any case, these types of assists can be made far more fuel-efficient—if not even possible in the first place—if you launch your journey at certain times rather than at others. In other words, you deliberately wait until the orbital cycles of Mars or Jupiter bring them near particular locations in space so that you can better use them to loop further outward toward, say, Neptune, a destination whose future position you will also have calculated in advance. If you want to use as little fuel and energy as possible, or even just to be as graceful as you can, you don't just launch whenever you want and hope for the best.

The metaphoric potential of all this is obviously incredibly rich, but the real reason I'm writing this is because of a fascinating comment or two found in Brian Fagan's book Beyond the Blue Horizon.

While discussing the human settlement of extremely remote islands in the South Pacific, what Fagan calls "remote Oceania," he explains how ancient mariners relied on "seasonal winds" and celestial navigation to push "ever farther east" to the most extreme outer island edges of Polynesia. These seasonal winds formed part of what he calls "the Pacific's waltz of atmosphere and ocean," whereby known or predictable climatological events could be used to help propel people from one archipelago to another.

Here, Fagan writes that "[e]arly human settlement of the offshore Pacific revolved, in part, around enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood. Ultimately, most of them depend on what one might call an elaborate, usually slow-moving waltz involving two partners—the atmosphere and the ocean."

[Images: Polynesian "stick charts," via The Nonist].

What fascinates me here is the idea that we can draw a rough analogy between Fagan's "enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena that are still little understood" and gravity-assisted space travel.

You can imagine, in other words, a well-organized group of extreme maritime navigators standing on the shores of a remote Pacific island chain, looking further out to sea together, knowing that there are distant land masses out there, implied by the winds and currents—but, more crucially, knowing that they will need a particular atmospheric event strong enough to take them there. They are thus timing their launch.

As people basically sat around waiting till the skies were right, Fagan's "enduring, large-scale meteorological phenomena" would have produced amazing local mythologies of storms yet to come and other atmospheric folklore.

Like NASA scientists calculating the positions of Mars and Jupiter as they hoped to slingshot themselves beyond the black horizon of the solar system, these beach-going super-navigators would have known that the regional winds move in seven- or ten-year cycles, or even that a one-hundred year storm is required to bring them further out into the oceanic. They thus temporarily become land-based, settling there on a particular island chain and raising their children on tales of a journey yet to come. Navigators in waiting.

[Images: Polynesian "stick charts," via The Nonist].

Imagine the diagrams or folklore that might have explained all this, like Arthur C. Clarke tales passed down family to family a thousand years ago on a windswept atoll—a science fiction not of interplanetary travel but a kind of anthropological Star Trek of outer-sea navigation.

Then the winds pick up, or strange Antarctic clouds begin to appear again for the first time in a generation, and everyone knows what it means: the signs are right and the skies are clicking back into place, and they start to build canoes, those little wooden space probes for pushing the limits of a maritime universe.

It's just a different kind of slingshotting: not slingshotting yourself between planets using gravity, but slingshotting yourself from island chain to island chain, riding the long tail of predictable winds you know can't last and that only appear once per generation. Those future storms will take you to distant archipelagoes where your descendants will have to wait another decade—or century or millennium—memorizing wind patterns and plotting their woven way through Fagan's "slow-moving waltz" of rhythmic wind patterns and currents.

Transecting Amsterdam

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

Here's an old project by Dutch graphic designer Frank Dresmé. Called Project 360º, it used the idea of the "transect" as a way to map and graphically depict pedestrian movement through urban space.

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

As Dresmé explains, he found existing maps of Amsterdam both navigationally inadequate and conceptually boring, so he sought to find a new way to represent how the city really feels as a sequence of spatial opportunities and physical obstacles.

This meant, among other things, focusing on and highlighting the signs, paths, turns, landmarks, and other bits of the city that stand out to someone intent on moving through it.

[Image: From Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

The results was "four psychogeographical maps," as he described them, that unpeeled and restitched Amsterdam back together again.

"These maps are the routes between personal destinations in Amsterdam," he explained. "Every destination in a different wind direction; north /east /south /west back to the north."

While the final images are perhaps not navigationally useful for other pedestrians, they are certainly visually striking; what is more important, in any case, would not be the use-value you can extract from Dresmé's project, but the methods and techniques it suggests for breaking down and understanding your own use of the city.

[Image: Exhibiting Project 360º by Frank Dresmé].

Given all of the spatial data now available about ourselves, whether we want it to be or not, it seems particularly timely to imagine new ways of engaging with, mapping, and representing that geographic information.

Part trail map, part daily diary, Dresmé's transect offers as good an option as any. Download a PDF of the project over at his site.

[Note: Brent Milligan of Free Association Design used these and other graphic representations of urban space as a launching point for a long post back in 2009].

A Vast Array of Props

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has posted an interview with artist Thomas Scholes about "how concept art is made."

Scholes refers to himself as "an environment specialist," and he describes how he develops the architecture and landscapes for games such as Guild Wars 2, Halo 4, Gigantic, and many others.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

One of his many strategies is to develop what RPS calls "a vast array of props": Scholes, we read, has "constructed huge asset sets from which he can plunder. A previous month-long project of his was to create a vast array of props, which he can now deposit in his images and rework to give a sense of clutter."

These include architectural motifs—arches, walls, stone monoliths, ruins—that are often just reworked from previous backgrounds. For these, he will "repurpose bits of previous paintings, manipulating their shape to suggest a receding wall, ceiling or floor."

[Image: Thomas Scholes, Sketch a Day series; view larger].

Scholes recently embarked on a "sketch a day" project that produced the images you see here. The sketches are left rough, or, as RPS suggest, they "resist the instinct to over-define, to steer them away from pedantic perfectionism."

This often makes his images both impressionistic and painterly, emotive explorations of gothic terrains and environments.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

Many of these images are frankly gorgeous, including vibrant forest landscapes that would not look out of place in an exhibition of 18th-century landscape painting—or even alongside examples from the Hudson River School or the work of Caspar David Friedrich.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

These being games, of course, rather than the Rückenfigur of Friedrich, you've got cloaked figures peering into hostile and mysterious landscapes, looking not for aesthetic solace but for hidden strategic advantages, ready for combat.

[Images: Thomas Scholes, Oppidum; view larger].

In any case, check out the interview over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun or, even better, click around Scholes's website for a lot more images like these.

[Image: Thomas Scholes, miscellaneous work; view larger].

[Previously on BLDGBLOG: Game/Space: An Interview with Daniel Dociu].

X Marks the Spot

[Image: A motif index for lost mines and treasures applied to redaction of Arizona legends, and to lost mine and treasure legends exterior to Arizona by Byrd Howell Granger].

Several lifetimes ago, I worked as a summer intern at the American Folklife Center down in Washington D.C., where, before my internship officially ended, I spent a few hours making loads of photocopies from a bunch of old papers, articles, pamphlets, self-published magazines, and various books about maps, mythology, folksong lyrics, and more. Even today, I keep finding these things filed away in various places.

One of the more interesting things I took with me, and that I just stumbled upon again, was a project by Byrd Howell Granger. She was an absolutely fascinating woman who served as a commanding officer in the Women Air Force Service Pilots Squadron before later becoming a folklorist; she then flew all over Arizona studying place names and the local legends that led to them, meticulously documenting the geographic folklore of the U.S. southwest.

There are a million possible things to write about Granger's life, but the one thing of hers I left D.C. with was a random sheaf of photocopied pages from a book exploring the folklore of "lost mines and treasures" in the west. The book includes a numbered list of lost treasure stories, explaining how gold bars, silver bullion, stolen Aztec jewels, and other "treasures" were left scattered throughout the landscape.

The stories are concise, novelistic, and enticing, like a peculiarly Western variation on Félix Fénéon's Novels in Three Lines.

[Image: An unrelated shot of a 19th-century silver mine in Michigan; via the Library of Congress].

"In the early days of the California missions some priests were transporting church treasure along a trail through the rough Graham Mountains," Howell writes. "A scout warned them that Apaches were coming. Hastily the padres hid the gold, money, jeweled church vessels and other things in a cave. In the ensuing battle, all but a few were killed. The survivors could not recall where the cave was."

Or: "Between 1520 and 1541, many treasure-seeking Spaniards traveled through what is now Arizona. One group crossing northern Arizona transported much gold and silver. Pursued by Indians [sic] near what is now Flagstaff, the Spaniards buried their treasure and separated to save themselves. A few escaped. These handed down the legend of a treasure which still awaits recovery."

Other times, these shortest of short stories read like a new comic by Mike Mignola: "Long ago at Tubac," we read, "maps to buried treasure were buried in a house. The place was abandoned and the maps forgotten. Then when Tubac became a part of Arizona, new people moved into the old house. Because of the way the moon caused one wall to glow, they believed that the house was haunted. They decided to remove the offending wall, and when they did they found an underground room containing a paper which crumbled to dust on exposure. The glow never reappeared."

Howell's book breaks these stories down into "motifs," or oft-repeated narrative details (such as a band of attacking Apaches, a fleeing church group, a lost Frenchman, a handful of wandering children, etc.), and then shows how these details are being constantly churned up and remixed from locality to locality to form new variations on the same basic storyline. It's how folklore is born.

[Image: Otherwise unrelated shot of a gold mine in California; via the Library of Congress].

Briefly, I'll mention that the genre of the lost Western treasure pops up unexpectedly in a film called King of California, starring Michael Douglas. The film is not very good—so be forewarned, if you decide to watch it—but the premise is amazing. The short version of it is that Douglas, recently released from a psychiatric hospital, reveals to his daughter that he spent the last several years of his confinement researching the life of an old Spanish church father whose treasure—rumored to be buried in the same region north of Los Angeles where he and his daughter now live—has never been found.

The landscape is now a sprawl of freeways, subdivisions, chain restaurants, golf courses, and big box stores, and it is amidst all this that Douglas embarks on what should have been an entertaining romp, tracking seasonal constellations, looking for inscriptions in old rocks, and performing detailed property surveys among the parking lots.

He is looking for a lost river and a particular conjunction of stars—and he actually finds it. He locates the site of the Spanish treasure.

The only problem is there's now a Costco built on top of it.

[Image: Michael Douglas measures out the exact spot of the buried treasure, near some potted plants in Costco; from King of California].

Undaunted, Douglas hauls his surveying gear deep into the store and manages to measure out the precise spot where he needs to dig, beneath some large home appliances.

Now all he has to do is come back and break into the store at night, hammer down through the concrete floor, uncover the buried river, and then swim downstream toward the Spaniard's buried treasure. Simple.

[Image: The lost river uncovered, Douglas prepares to jump in; from King of California].

It's an absurd but brilliant premise, and it is unfortunately marred by almost everything else about the film.

However, I mention it here because it sounds like something straight out of Byrd Howell Granger's book: emotionally disturbed suburbanites convinced that, amongst all the concrete and imported palm trees, beneath the cars and swimming pools, there must be some sort of buried treasure, some great and lost thing that can redeem all this, making their lives of unbearable mundanity finally worthwhile.

Greek Gods, Moles, and Robot Oceans

[Image: The Very Low Frequency antenna field at Cutler, Maine, a facility for communicating with at-sea submarine crews].

There have been about a million stories over the past few weeks that I've been dying to write about, but I'll just have to clear through a bunch here in one go.

1) First up is a fascinating request for proposals from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, who is looking to build a "Positioning System for Deep Ocean Navigation." It has the handy acronym of POSYDON.

POSYDON will be "an undersea system that provides omnipresent, robust positioning" in the deep ocean either for crewed submarines or for autonomous seacraft. "DARPA envisions that the POSYDON program will distribute a small number of acoustic sources, analogous to GPS satellites, around an ocean basin," but I imagine there is some room for creative maneuvering there.

The idea of an acoustic deep-sea positioning system that operates similar to GPS is pretty interesting to imagine, especially considering the strange transformations sound undergoes as it is transmitted through water. To establish accurately that a U.S. submarine has, in fact, heard an acoustic beacon and that its apparent distance from that point is not being distorted by intervening water temperature, ocean currents, or even the large-scale presence of marine life is obviously quite an extraordinary challenge.

As DARPA points out, without such a system in place, "undersea vehicles must regularly surface to receive GPS signals and fix their position, and this presents a risk of detection." The ultimate goal, then, would be to launch ultra-longterm undersea missions, even establish permanently submerged robotic networks that have no need to breach the ocean's surface. Cthulhoid, they will forever roam the deep.

[Image: An unmanned underwater vehicle; U.S. Navy photo by S. L. Standifird].

If you think you've got what it takes, click over to DARPA and sign up.

2) A while back, I downloaded a free academic copy of a fascinating book called Space-Time Reference Systems by Michael Soffel and Ralf Langhans.

Their book "presents an introduction to the problem of astronomical–geodetical space–time reference systems," or radically offworld navigation reference points for when a craft is, in effect, well beyond any known or recognizable landmarks in space. Think of it as a kind of new longitude problem.

The book is filled with atomic clocks, quasars potentially repurposed as deep-space orientation beacons, the long-term shifting of "astronomical reference frames," and page after page of complex math I make no claim to understand.

However, I mention this here because the POSYDON program is almost the becoming-cosmic of the ocean: that is, the depths of the sea reimagined as a vast and undifferentiated space within which mostly robotic craft will have to orient themselves on long missions. For a robotic submarine, the ocean is its universe.

3) The POSYDON program is just one part of a much larger militarization of the deep seas. Consider the fact that the U.S. Office of Naval Research is hoping to construct permanent "hubs" on the seafloor for recharging robot submarines.

These "hubs" would be "unmanned, underwater pods where robots can recharge undetected—and securely upload the intelligence they’ve gathered to Navy networks." Hubs will be places where "unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs) can dock, recharge, upload data and download new orders, and then be on their way."

"You could keep this continuous swarm of UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] wherever you wanted to put them... basically indefinitely, as long as you’re rotating (some) out periodically for mechanical issues," a Naval war theorist explained to Breaking Defense.

The ultimate vision is a kind of planet-spanning robot constellation: "The era of lone-wolf submarines is giving away [sic] to underwater networks of manned subs, UUVs combined with seafloor infrastructure such as hidden missile launchers—all connected to each other and to the rest of the force on the surface of the water, in the air, in space, and on land." This would include, for example, the "upward falling payloads" program described on BLDGBLOG a few years back.

Even better, from a military communications perspective, these hubs would also act as underwater relay points for broadcasting information through the water—or what we might call the ocean as telecommunications medium—something that currently relies on ultra-low frequency radio.

There is much more detail on this over at Breaking Defense.

4) Last summer, my wife and I took a quick trip up to Maine where we decided to follow a slight detour after hiking Mount Katahdin to drive by the huge antenna field at Cutler, a Naval communications station found way out on a tiny peninsula nearly on the border with Canada.

[Image: The antenna field at Cutler, Maine].

We talked to the security guard for a while about life out there on this little peninsula, but we were unable to get a tour of the actual facility, sadly. He mostly joked that the locals have a lot of conspiracy theories about what the towers are actually up to, including their potential health effects—which isn't entirely surprising, to be honest, considering the massive amounts of energy used there and the frankly otherworldly profile these antennas have on the horizon—but you can find a lot of information about the facility online.

So what does this thing do? "The Navy's very-low-frequency (VLF) station at Cutler, Maine, provides communication to the United States strategic submarine forces," a January 1998 white paper called "Technical Report 1761" explains. It is basically an east coast version of the so-called Project Sanguine, a U.S. Navy program from the 1980s that "would have involved 41 percent of Wisconsin," turning the Cheese State into a giant military antenna.

Cutler's role in communicating with submarines may or may not have come to an end, making it more of a research facility today, but the idea that, even if this came to an end with the Cold War, isolated radio technicians on a foggy peninsula in Maine were up there broadcasting silent messages into the ocean that were meant to be heard only by U.S. submarine crews pinging around in the deepest canyons of the Atlantic is both poetic and eerie.

[Image: A diagram of the antennas, from the aforementioned January 1998 research paper].

The towers themselves are truly massive, and you can easily see them from nearby roads, if you happen to be anywhere near Cutler, Maine.

In any case, I mention all this because behemoth facilities such as these could be made altogether redundant by autonomous underwater communication hubs, such as those described by Breaking Defense.

5) "The robots are winning!" Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New York Review of Books earlier this month. The opening paragraphs of his essay are is awesome, and I wish I could just republish the whole thing:
We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:
...He was crafting twenty tripods
to stand along the walls of his well-built manse,
affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own [automatoi] to the gods’ assembly
and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.

These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.
Mendelsohn goes on to discuss "the fantasy of mindless, self-propelled helpers that relieve their masters of toil," and it seems incredibly interesting to read it in the context of DARPA's now even more aptly named POSYDON program and the permanent undersea hubs of the Office of Naval Research. Click over to The New York Review of Books for the whole thing.

6) If the oceanic is the new cosmic, then perhaps the terrestrial is the new oceanic.

The Independent reported last month that magnetically powered underground robot "moles"—effectively subterranean drones—could potentially be used to ferry objects around beneath the city. They are this generation's pneumatic tubes.

The idea would be to use "a vast underground network of pipes in a bid to bypass the UK’s ever more congested roads." The company's name? What else but Mole Solutions, who refer to their own speculative infrastructure as a network of "freight pipelines."

[Image: Courtesy of Mole Solutions].

Taking a page from the Office of Naval Research and DARPA, though, perhaps these subterranean robot constellations could be given "hubs" and terrestrial beacons with which to orient themselves; combine with the bizarre "self-burying robot" from 2013, and declare endless war on the surface of the world from below.

See more at the Independent.

7) Finally, in terms of this specific flurry of links, Denise Garcia looks at the future of robot warfare and the dangerous "secrecy of emerging weaponry" that can act without human intervention over at Foreign Affairs.

She suggests that "nuclear weapons and future lethal autonomous technologies will imperil humanity if governed poorly. They will doom civilization if they’re not governed at all." On the other hand, as Daniel Mendelsohn points out, we have, in a sense, been dealing with the threat of a robot apocalypse since someone first came up with the myth of Hephaestus.

Garcia's short essay covers a lot of ground previously seen in, for example, Peter Singer's excellent book Wired For War; that's not a reason to skip one for the other, of course, but to read both. See more at Foreign Affairs.

(Thanks to Peter Smith for suggesting we visit the antennas at Cutler).

Composite Archaeology

[Image: A laser scan of the Pantheon, courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

ScanLAB Projects, focus of a long article on Wired last month, are back in the news with a BBC documentary exploring the infrastructure of ancient Rome.

The show "explores Roman infrastructure and ingenuity, all below ground level":
We journeyed via the icy, crystal clear waters of subterranean aqueducts that feed the Trevi fountain and two thousand year old sewers which still function beneath the Roman Forum today, to decadent, labyrinthine catacombs. Our laser scans map these hidden treasures, revealing for the first time the complex network of tunnels, chambers and passageways without which Rome could not have survived as a city of a million people.
The results, as usual, are both breathtaking and bizarre.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

The surface of the city is scraped away, a kind of archaeological dermabrasion, to reveal sprawling networks of knotted masonry and old corridors spliced together in a translucent labyrinth less below than somehow in the city.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

One of the most interesting points made in Mary-Ann Ray's excellent Pamphlet Architecture installment—1997's Seven Partly Underground Rooms and Buildings for Water, Ice, and Midgets—is when she describes her use of composite photography as a way to experiment with new forms of archaeological documentation.

Indeed, the pamphlet itself is as much architecture as it is archaeology—perhaps even suggesting a new series of historical site documents someone should produce called Pamphlet Archaeology—looking at wells, baths, cisterns, and spherical refrigeration chambers, in various states of ruin.

All of these are representationally difficult spaces, Ray explains, either curving away from the viewer in a manner that is nearly impossible to photograph or presenting constrictions of perspective that make even wide-angle photographs inadequate.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

Ray writes that the spatial complexity of the buildings, quarries, basements, and other excavations that she explores are, in a sense, an entirely different kind of space: knotty, interconnected, unstable. "They were also spaces," she writes, "which seemed to have the ability to 'flip-flop' in and out of multiple spatial or constructional readings."

What appears to be near is revealed to be far; what seems far away is suddenly adjacent.

[Image: Courtesy ScanLAB Projects and the BBC; view larger!].

Ray uses the metaphor of a "hyper-camera" here in order to draw comparisons between her composite photography and what she calls "a kind of cubist multiple view," one where "the frame might succumb to the taper of perspective into deep space, or it may counter it, or build it into something else altogether."

"In these composite views," she adds, "the photograph can record the enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body."

While Ray's photographic approach is technologically, materially, and even visually very different from the work of ScanLAB, the two projects share a great deal, conceptually and methodologically. In fact, if many of the above quotations were applied, instead, to the images seen in the present post, they would seem to be the appropriate descriptions.

[Image: In the ruined basements of architectural simultaneity; ScanLAB Projects and the BBC].

ScanLAB's laser work seems to fulfill many of the promises of Ray's composite photography, offering multiple, overlapping perspectives simultaneously whilst also eliminating the problem of the horizon or ground plane: you can thus look straight-on into the basement of an ancient structure without losing sight of the upper floors or chambers.

The city is split in two, made into an architectural section of itself that is then animated, made volumetric, turned into Ray's "enactment of space as one maneuvers or roams through it with the eye or body."

The show airs tonight on the BBC. Check out ScanLAB's website for more info, and definitely consider picking up a copy of Mary-Ann Ray's book; it remains one of my favorites and has actually become more, not less, topical since its original publication.

Manhattan Gyroscope

[Image: New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine under construction, a Piranesian gyroscope of arched masonry and brick; courtesy Museum of the City of New York].

National Color Test

[Image: Lüscher yellow].

By sheer coincidence, I was looking back through the archives of a blog called Unurthed the other day—a great, although seemingly now-defunct site written by Greg Pass—where I read about the so-called "Lüscher color test."

The test, according to that font of accurate historical insight, Wikipedia, was "a psychological test invented by Dr. Max Lüscher in Basel, Switzerland... Lüscher believed that because the color selections are guided in an unconscious manner, they reveal the person as they really are, not as they perceive themselves or would like to be perceived. He believed that personality traits could be identified based on one’s choice of color. Therefore, subjects who select identical color combinations have similar personalities."

[Image: Lüscher red].

Think of it as a more interesting, albeit still pseudoscientific version of the asinine Myers-Briggs Test, the latter of which is a scientifically useless form of personality evaluation that, in this age of anti-vaxxers, chemtrail conspiracists, and the politically motivated rejection of climate change science, has undergone a disquieting resurgence.

[Image: Lüscher green].

Lüscher's test was altogether more colorful, leading to a peacock's tail of brilliantly printed playing cards from which a person would choose their preferred hues.

I say I was reading that post on Unurthed "by sheer coincidence," because I was interested to see that Core77—which underwent a substantial redesign earlier this year and is worth checking out, if you haven't do so already—just posted about federal color regulations in the United States, inspired by a short article in the Washington Post.

U.S. color regulations, we read, give specific instructions for everything from how to paint U.S.P.S. post boxes and what Forest Service signs are meant to look like, to the specific color of Navy torpedoes and even a hue known as "Radome tan."

[Image: Federal Color #13415, School Bus Yellow].

Seeing those two posts one right after the other, however, despite their separation by years online, was almost jarring, like something straight out of a Thomas Pynchon novel: the U.S. federal color standards seen as a sort of unacknowledged color-personality evaluation involuntarily imposed on the populace, a Lüscher test for the entire nation.

[Image: Federal Color #15095, Post Office Light Blue].

Think of the central spatial premise of Rupert Thomson's under-rated 2005 novel Divided Kingdom, previously discussed on BLDGBLOG a long while back.

Thomson describes a UK split up into four sub-nations based on personality, where each personality type has been given a color—Yellow, Green, Blue, or Red—that reflects their emotional disposition.

I mention this here not to argue about the political viability of such a scenario, but to point out that the inadvertent juxtaposition of the Lüscher color test with the closely regulated system of colors "used in government procurement" suggests a peculiar variation on that novel's core idea, as if the infrastructure around us is really a homeopathic, color-based personality test in disguise.

Where you like to drive, and the kinds of spaces and institutions you're attracted to or repelled by, would all be part of an undeclared, immersive evaluation procedure coextensive with the federal landscape.

[Image: Federal Color #14066, DoT Highway Green].

While Thomson's novel—at least as far as I recall—does not propose the actual color-coding of urban infrastructure to reflect inhabitants' emotional state, it is not a huge leap to assume that the application of certain colors on a large enough scale could begin to exert Lüscher-like personality effects.

Surely there's a YA dystopian novel in that somewhere... Which color are you?

Culinary Air Pollution

[Image: Cooking with smog at the World Health Organization in Geneva; photo courtesy the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography].

If you're in NYC later today, the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography have teamed up to explore the culinary implications of air pollution with a "smog-tasting cart."

[Image: Cooking with smog at the World Health Organization in Geneva; photo courtesy the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography].

According to their press release, the collaborators are "delighted to offer New Yorkers their first opportunity to conduct a side-by-side tasting of air from different cities":
A smog-tasting cart, complete with precursor chemicals, smog chamber, and whisk, will be serving free smog meringues from four different locations, as part of an installation and performance that aims to transform otherwise abstract air quality data and passive inhalation into an aesthetically, emotionally, and politically charged experience.
Being married to Nicola Twilley, the author of Edible Geography, I was able to tag along during part of the research process, including a visit to the world's largest artificial "smog chamber" at the Bourns College of Engineering in Riverside, California.

The place had the feel of a sci-fi air factory, where microcosmic research-atmospheres were being mixed and baked into existence under the heat of countless black lights. It was a kiln for new skies.

[Image: The reflective walls of the smog chamber under endless black light; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Our visit was essentially an immersive chemistry lesson, as we stepped into a huge reflective room—the aforementioned smog chamber—used for experimentally recreating specific urban atmospheres, and we learned how different chemicals react at different concentrations to create specific aerial effects such as smog.

Even smog has its own classes and types; there are Atlanta-style smogs, London-style smogs, Los Angeles-style smogs. If I remember correctly, Beijing has London-style smog, whereas Santiago, I believe, has Los Angeles-style smog.

The next and seemingly most obvious question, of course, would be whether or not you could mix and match the atmospheric conditions of different cities to create synthetic, previously impossible smogs—aerial effects that are heavy with everything from automobile exhaust and cooking smoke to pine oils and other plant-based resins—to create speculative smogs for cities or landscapes that don't exist.

Even other planets have their own heavy weather and distinct atmospheres, of course; could there be interplanetary smog research, cooked into meringue form and experienced as a new suite of tastes?

[Image: Smog chamber black lights; photo by BLDGBLOG].

As Nicola Twilley describes it, this all got her thinking "about the concept of 'aeroir,' and the idea that urban atmospheres capture a unique taste of place." This would be a dispersed, atmospheric variation of terroir, from the world of wine:
This smog-tasting cart is intended as the start of a larger collaboration exploring the concept of “aeroir.” After all, air is the site at which we have an intimate, constant interaction with a geographically specific manifestation of urban planning, economic activity, environmental regulation, and meteorological forces. We hope to develop a multi-sensory series of installations, devices, and performances to make that interaction sense-able.
Stop by the smog cart today if you'd like to ask the artists more about their project, or if you simply want a free meringue.

[Image: Cooking with smog at the World Health Organization in Geneva; photo courtesy the Center for Genomic Gastronomy and Edible Geography].

The project is part of this year's IDEAS City, sponsored by the New Museum.