"What would a town inhabited by Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Alexander Calder and Man Ray look like?" they ask. "Taking inspiration from works in the Tate collection, in particular the speculative etchings by architects Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin and paintings by the Surrealists, our objective is to design and build a fictional miniature village made entirely from paper."
Their own project, Grimm City, is perhaps an example of what might result.
As architect CJ Lim describes it in his introduction to the project in a gorgeously produced, limited print-run hardcover catalog, as "Grimm City is a future state derived from architectural extrapolations of the fairytales by the Brothers Grimm."
That is, it is an elaborate narrative disguised as a city—a story given urban form.
Bronner and Hillier explain that the "blueprint" for their city was "conceived in ink exactly 200 years ago," and "was shaped by 86 magnificent tales collected by two of the most distinguished storytellers of their time."
They are referring, of course, to the Brothers Grimm.
[Images: Two views of the Church and the neighboring Destruction Structure from Grimm City by Flea Folly Architects].
Briefly, in what now feels like another lifetime, when I was backpacking through Germany after graduating from college, I made a beeline to the small city of Marburg after reading that it was a university town overlooked by an 11th-century fort—and that it was also once home to the Brothers Grimm.
I showed up by train and spent a few days there, mostly reading Grimm stories, feeding ducks, and walking around the roads that spiraled up to the castle; and I later learned, with equal interest, that one of the weird coincidences of history would make Marburg the same city where a strain of hemorrhagic fever would be isolated.
The disease, which is now rather straight-forwardly called Marburg, seems a fittingly strange continuation of the stories of the Brothers Grimm, in terms of the dark and often fatal transformations humans can undergo.
In any case, Grimm City is an architectural translation of their various stories, plots, allegories, and characters, and it took on a life of its own. "With enormous spinning wheels, tower-like limbs and turrets for claws, it began to resemble a machine that had been unjustly woken from its deep slumber," they write.
At times visually reminiscent of Aldo Rossi or even John Hejduk, the black diagrams are unexpectedly carnivalesque, monochromatic yet fizzing with lively detail.
There are structures such as The Ink Factory, a Silver Forest (made entirely of money-producing slot machines, eg. a forest where silver grows), an economic Barometer spinning over the city, and a school of thieves and burglary.
Your exposure and isolation in ascending to the Booths is part of the process: a confessional infrastructure that compels one toward self-incrimination.
Elsewhere, there's The Morning Star, a kind of heliogenic megabulb that hangs over the city, casting shadows and making time, burning at the center of an urban calendar that guides the lives of those living in the streets below.
And, finally, there is a huge plateau known as The Golden Compound where a vast sprawl—of what appear to be batteries—promises a "commune for the living-dead," a dormitory those who "cheat death and remain everlasting" in this fairy tale metropolis.
"No one really knows if those inside" of these endless, battery-like structures, "are dead or alive," we read, "and no one dares to find out." They could be described as electrical mausoleums where sleeping beauties lie, equally alive and dead.
There are many, many further images, of course, as well as an intricate physical model that accompanied them; the whole thing was displayed at the London Design Museum back in October-November 2013 and, with any luck, the images and model both will someday show up in a gallery near you.
Aside from the obvious grandeur of the structure, what makes this spatially noteworthy is the fact that one floor is pinched together with the next, and that the self-supporting "pinch" that results then becomes formalized as a stairway, a hyperbolic object in space that allows passage from one level to the next.
It's as if a loop has been pulled or extracted from each level and then woven together—in effect, using a self-intersecting geometric pattern as the basis of a floorplan.
In any case, what I like in both examples (this one and the previous staircase), is that you have two floors or levels, obviously, but then there is the emptiness that separates them, a gap buzzing with unrealized forms of connection, and that you can fill that gap with pinches, spirals, knots, and loops, and that the magic of a well-designed staircase is precisely in giving material form to the invisible math that hovers in the space between floors.
There are two stairways I wanted to post, as they each solve the problem of getting from one floor to another in a particularly interesting way. The first example, seen above, is from the New York Life Insurance building in Minneapolis, Minnesota, designed by Babb, Cook and Willard.
What I love about this is incredibly simple, and it's nothing more than the fact that a constrained approach from one floor to the next—with the far wall serving almost more like a cliff face—gave the architects no real room to operate. So they put in two, mirror-image spiral stairways, which kept the center of the room clear while dramatically increasing its available circulation space.
Today, of course, we'd probably just stick an elevator there and be done with it—but the compression of space made possible by spiral staircases is amazing. They are elegant prosthetics, connecting two levels like a casual afterthought with their efficient knots and coils.
An Australian company called Ingström designs and manufactures "escape chutes" for use both inside and outside of buildings.
These are fabric chutes—like large sleeves or pant legs—that allow relatively quick evacuation from an architectural structure, where the word "evacuation" takes on a somewhat comical double meaning, as the examples seen in the YouTube video, above, genuinely look like an alien bowel has taken up residence inside an office building somewhere in India, with people squeezing themselves down through its sphinctrous maw to a soundtrack of tablas.
Like the "SkySaver" system we looked at last summer, Ingström chutes offer a kind of secondary or alternative method of circulation through and around architectural space. What's interesting about the "Multi-Entry" chute in particular, however, is that it seems to go so far as to suggest an entire secondary interior for the building, one that cuts through existing rooms like a web to form a bulbous topology that would be just as useful as some strange new form of children's playground as an actual, life-saving system for emergency egress.
(See also Rain Noe's take on escape chutes over at Core77. Originally spotted via @machimachinc).
[Image: Unrealized proposal for a "Palace of Water and Light" (1940) designed by Pier Luigi Nervi for the never-held 1942 Universal Exhibition in Rome; view larger. Via Oniropolis. Unrelated but potentially of interest, the "10 Mile Spiral" by Aranda\Lasch].
[Image: Pier Two Athletic Center by Maryann Thompson Architects, Brooklyn; via Architizer].
A profile of Reebok published the other week on Bloomberg Business—which you needn't read, unless you are really into either shoe design or the global fitness industry—there's a brief but interesting observation about what people seem to want to do these days, in terms of physical activity.
Not exercise, as such—which is the wrong way to think about it—but physically moving through space together and having a good time.
The article points out the obvious, for example, that CrossFit is on the rise, and that things like Tough Mudders, Spartan Races, etc., are all gaining in popularity; to this, I would also add climbing, which—based on my own entirely unscientific observations—appears to be undergoing its own boom time, at least gauged by the madhouse of over-attendance you often see at local climbing gyms in the hour after school gets out, turning a place like my local Brooklyn Boulders into an awesome new kind of home away from home for many local teenagers.
The article calls these "unconventional sports," and they don't require the traditional gym set-up. They require unconventional spaces and landscapes.
This is thus at least partially a question of design.
The new emphasis is on "social fitness," the article claims—but I'd say that even that phrase misses the primary motivation, which is really just screwing around with your friends, doing something fun, extreme, memorable, a little crazy, and simply different.
It means something that gets your heart rate up, lets you run around or climb on things for no reason to blow off steam, and that turns your immediate spatial environment into a place of often berserk new physical opportunities—another way of saying that you can literally climb the walls.
It's like The Purge meets phys ed—not just "exercise," with all the moral overtones of such a misused word.
“We’ve seen a real shift in the fitness world away from using heavy equipment like treadmills and stair climbers and toward much more social, class-based fitness—Zumba, Pilates, yoga, CrossFit,” an analyst named Matt Powell explains to Bloomberg Business. “These activities are really ramping up. So for a brand to stake out the fitness activity as their cornerstone makes a lot of sense right now.”
He's talking about Reebok exploring new shoe designs made specifically for CrossFit and other forms of unconventional training apparel—but I'm genuinely curious what the architectural implications are in such a shift. Put another way, if Reebok was an architecture firm in charge of high school gymnasiums, what would this corporate revelation do to their spatial products? If what people physically do together has shifted toward the social, how might school gyms follow suit?
This isn't just idle, Archigram-meets-Gold's-Gym speculation. It we want to reverse the utterly insane trend toward removing gym class from children's educational experiences, then it's 100-times more likely that we'll be able to do so not by cracking the whip harder and turning schools into militarized boot camps, but by designing spatial environments in which kids can do the things they actually want to do, where "exercise" is just a beneficial side-effect.
Even if that means adding BMX tracks, parkour competitions, trapeze routines, or—why not?—afternoon mud fights.
"Recess has been reduced or eliminated in many schools"
As Kaiser Permanente has pointed out, "the trend line for physical activity and education in schools is headed downward. As of 2006, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools nationwide provided daily physical education. Even recess has been reduced or eliminated in many schools." This is horrifying.
Yet, if you stop by a place like the aforementioned Brooklyn Boulders on a weeknight, you'll see not only that the place is often packed with teenagers who are as stoked as hell to be out of the classroom, doing weird physical things together, but that, awesomely, it's often the very kids most often stereotyped as not giving a crap about exercise who are there hanging out and literally climbing the walls.
How can it be that gym class—or, more broadly speaking, physical activities in American schools—are so out of touch with what kids actually want to do these days that kids need to make a bee-line to the nearest climbing gym to burn off all their energy?
Is this purely a liability issue—because everyone's perfect angel might scrape a knee—or has there been a failure of spatial imagination amongst the people building gyms and playgrounds today?
Just think of the underground bike park in Louisville or even just a local skatepark—or, for that matter, any of the more youth-oriented playgrounds I wrote about a few years ago for Popular Science.
In fact, just the other week, my wife and I were learning how to do 40-foot high falls off of scaffolding inside a warehouse over in Greenpoint as part of this random stunt-training thing we did. We were in a cavernous room full of huge mats, climbing walls, an oversized trampoline, and all sorts of other random things, like swords—and, what do you know, but there were also tons of kids of there, from the genuinely young to teenagers going through the most awkward phase of teenagerness, and there was no evidence on display that we live in a world where kids don't want to do weird physical things together.
In other words, most people do want to "get exercise," as it is unfortunately and rather Calvinistically known; they just want to do in a way where it's a side-effect of having fun.
Outdoor design consultant Scott McGuire of The Mountain Lab said something really interesting in a long interview published here back in 2013. McGuire suggested that "sport specificity" is being thrown out the window these days in favor of a general state of pure physical activity. Or, in his words:
When I grew up, you were a surfer or you were a skater or you were a climber or you were a road biker. But kids today don’t think anything like that—they think, "I do all of those things! Why would I not be someone who is a skier who’s also into bouldering who’s taking up trail running and who competes in Wii dance competitions? Why can’t I be that person?" There’s a sense that I will be whoever I want to be, whenever—and, of course, I will be multifaceted.
McGuire went on to suggest, similar to the Bloomberg Business article cited above, that "this is a generation who don’t see why they can’t leave the trail, go to town, have lunch, and go to the skate park and skate all afternoon, and not change gear. But the outdoor industry is having a hard time reconciling that."
But, crucially, architects are having a hard time reconciling that, too. The spatial environments currently being designed and built to foster "exercise," or physically engaged play, today rarely correspond to the activities people seem most excited to pursue.
In fact, I'd suggest that this is part of a much larger narrative, one that includes the decline in interest in heavily formalized Olympic sports, where the rise of alternative activities, such as X Games, parkour, BMX, and skateboarding, are proof that something else could very well fill that niche, but our spatial environments are lagging too far behind.
If at least part of the crisis in phys ed today is that school gyms are simply being built wrong, then the obvious next question would be: what should they really look like?
This is, among other things, an architectural problem: what sorts of physical activities have been designed out of the school environment—not to mention the city, the suburb, the home, or the office?
Conversely, what activities should the schools, gyms, and buildings of today actually foster or allow?
[Image: Hyundai Motors FC Clubhouse by Suh Architects, South Korea; via Architizer].
At the most mundane level, could the architecture of the school building itself somehow absorb or otherwise channel the infamous distractibility and hyper-activity of kids today into deliberately frivolous physical activities (that is, "exercise")?
In other words, if it looks like those kids in the back of class are literally about to climb the walls from eating too much breakfast cereal, then why not let them? Put whole spiraling labyrinths of climbing walls and tunnels throughout the school, with mats and helmets everywhere, and make exploring these inner wilds a genuine reward for sitting still in class.
There is nothing radical in such an observation, but it is nonetheless a genuine and important social issue: how to inspire, not to mention architecturally encourage, intense physical activity at all ages.
It's not just urban design that's "making us fat," which is, after all, just an overly moralizing way of saying that urban design doesn't let us have fun. It's the fact that almost none of our buildings, including our schools and playgrounds, have been built to allow the kinds of physical activities people actually want to engage in these days.
So, if we go back to the Reebok example from the very beginning of this post, we'll find an architectural conversation hiding in the details. We see a company realizing that its products no longer correspond to what its potential consumers actually want to do, and then forcing itself to fundamentally redesign those products in order to reflect the needs of this overlooked market.
What is the architectural—or more broadly speaking spatial—equivalent of this, and what should the gyms, schools, and playgrounds of tomorrow actually look like?
Black eyedrops made from a "chlorophyll analog" have allowed human subjects to experience night vision—without the use of special goggles.
The chemical, called Chlorin e6, "is found in some deep-sea fish and is used as an occasional method to treat night blindness," according to Mic.
The group who actually ran the experiment, Science for the Masses, is based in Tehachapi, California, somewhat amusingly described by Mic as being "a couple hours north of Los Angeles," which is rhetorically equivalent to saying they're in the middle of nowhere (in fact, Tehachapi is quite close to California City).
In effect, the modified eyedrop procedure was just a tactical misuse of a known cancer treatment: that is, Chlorin e6, or Ce6, is normally used as "a photosensitizer in laser assisted cancer remediation," the group explained. "The light amplification properties of the Ce6 are used to use the energy from a low power light source to destroy cancerous cells with literal laser precision."
It is this "light amplification" that enables the alleged night vision.
"To me, it was a quick, greenish-black blur across my vision, and then it dissolved into my eyes," Gabriel Licina, the team's voluntary guinea pig, explained.
According to the team's own report—which must be taken with a grain of salt, at least until other researchers have reproduced the results—it actually worked: it gave Licina night vision. From Mic:
It started with shapes, hung about 10 meters away. "I'm talking like the size of my hand," Licina says. Before long, they were able to do longer distances, recognizing symbols and identifying moving subjects against different backgrounds.
The team has posted a "review" of the experience on their website, which offers some more insight into the process.
But, again, assuming this isn't simply an exaggeration or even a hoax, the idea that humans can now see in the dark with the help of eyedrops based on chlorophyll—as if borrowing an optical superpower from the vegetable kingdom, incorporating other species and experiencing self-hybridization in order to capture light at even its wispiest and most ghostlike extremes—is jaw-dropping. Or eye-popping, as the case may be.
You can easily imagine this becoming standard for nighttime police operations or military raids—with Special Ops teams giving themselves eyedrops before sneaking into an unlit town—but one could even imagine this having an effect on global energy bills.
What if improving grid efficiency is at least partially also a medical question—that is, if you could just drop some Ce6 in a dark city without the need for streetlights, or even walk through your own apartment with pupils the size of dinner plates, seeing everything?
The possibility that human self-augmentation might serve as an alternative to urban infrastructure is a pretty mind-boggling scenario, implying a whole new suite of possibilities for the future of urban design.
At the very least, it suggests a bizarre—if not quite dystopian—situation where we might find that redesigning the city is less effective than redesigning ourselves.
You might have seen the news last month that two students from George Mason University developed a way to put out fires using sound.
"It happens so quickly you almost don’t believe it," the Washington Post reported at the time. "Seth Robertson and Viet Tran ignite a fire, snap on their low-rumbling bass frequency generator and extinguish the flames in seconds."
Indeed, it seems to work so well that "they think the concept could replace the toxic and messy chemicals involved in fire extinguishers."
There are about a million interesting things here, but I was totally captivated by two things, in particular.
At one point in the video, co-inventor Viet Tran suggests that the device could be used in "swarm robotics" where it would be "attached to a drone" and then used to put out fires, whether wildfires or large buildings such as the recent skyscraper fire in Dubai. But consider how this is accomplished; from the Washington Post:
The basic concept, Tran said, is that sound waves are also “pressure waves, and they displace some of the oxygen” as they travel through the air. Oxygen, we all recall from high school chemistry, fuels fire. At a certain frequency, the sound waves “separate the oxygen [in the fire] from the fuel. The pressure wave is going back and forth, and that agitates where the air is. That specific space is enough to keep the fire from reigniting.”
While I'm aware that it's a little strange this would be the first thing to cross my mind, surely this same effect could be weaponized, used to thin the air of oxygen and cause targeted asphyxiation wherever these robot swarms are sent next. After all, even something as simple as an over-loud bass line in your car can physically collapse your lungs: "One man was driving when he experienced a pneumothorax, characterised by breathlessness and chest pain," the BBC reported back in 2004. "Doctors linked it to a 1,000 watt 'bass box' fitted to his car to boost the power of his stereo."
In other words, motivated by a large enough defense budget—or simply by unadulterated misanthropy—you could thus suffocate whole cities with an oxygen-thinning swarm of robot sound systems in the sky. Those "Ride of the Valkyries"-blaring speakers mounted on Robert Duvall's helicopter in Apocalypse Now might be playing something far more sinister over the battlefields of tomorrow.
However, the other, more ethically acceptable point of interest here is the possible landscape effect such an invention might have—that is, the possibility that this could be scaled-up to fight forest fires. There are a lot of problems with this, of course, including the fact that, even if you deplete a fire of oxygen, if the temperature remains high, it will simply flicker back to life and keep burning.
Nonetheless, there is something awesomely compelling in the idea that a wildfire burning in the woods somewhere in the mountains of Arizona might be put out by a wall of speakers playing ultra-low bass lines, rolling specially designed patterns of sound across the landscape, so quiet you almost can't hear it.
A hum rumbles across the roots and branches of burning trees; there is a moment of violent trembling, as if an unseen burst of wind has blown through; and then the flames go out, leaving nothing but tendrils of smoke and this strange acoustic presence buzzing further into the fires up ahead.
Instead of emergency amphibious aircraft dropping lake water on remote conflagrations, we'd have mobile concerts of abstract sound—the world's largest ambient raves—broadcast through National Parks and on the edges of desert cities.
Desperate, Los Angeles County hires a Department of Ambient Music to save the city from a wave of drought-augmented superfires; equipped with keyboards and effects pedals, wearing trucker hats and plaid, these heroes of the drone wander forth to face the inferno, extinguishing flames with lush carpets of anoxic sound.
I've got a new column up at New Scientist about the possibility that privately run extraction outposts in the Canadian north might be useful prototypes—even political testing-grounds—for future offworld settlements.
"In a sense," I write, "we are already experimenting with off-world colonization—only we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north."
For example, when Elon Musk explained to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine last year that cities on Mars are "the next step" for human civilization—indeed, that we all "need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization"—he was not calling for a second Paris or a new Manhattan on the frigid, windswept plains of the Red Planet.
Rather, humans are far more likely to build variations of the pop-up, investor-funded, privately policed, weather-altering instant cities of the Canadian north.
Fermont is particularly fascinating, as it includes what I describe over at New Scientist as a "weather-controlling super-wall," a 1.3km-long residential mega-complex specifically built to alter local wind patterns.
Could outposts like these serve as examples—or perhaps cautionary tales—for what humans will build on other worlds?
Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing.
Go check out the article in full, if it sounds of interest; and consider picking up a copy of Alessandra Ponte's new book, The House of Light and Entropy, while you're at it, a fascinating study of landscape, photography, mapping, geographic emptiness, the American West, and the "North" as a newly empowered geopolitical terrain.
The U.S. Secret Service might construct a back-up White House—or, more accurately, a "fake White House to help protect the real one," the New York Times reports.
It would be an $8 million "detailed replica" of the presidential residence constructed 20 miles from the existing White House. Secret Service agents could then train in a more accurate environment; at the moment, according to Secret Service director Joseph P. Clancy, "train on a parking lot, basically... We put up a makeshift fence and walk off the distance between the fence at the White House and the actual house itself. We don’t have the bushes, we don’t have the fountains, we don’t get a realistic look at the White House."
This White House redux, so to speak, would join a long list of other proprietary microcosms, or military and security-themed surrogate landscapes used for training purposes—but it also raises the question of where other, unofficial bootleg White Houses might already exist, sitting quietly inside vast Russian warehouses, for example, or inside camouflaged aircraft hangars in the outer regions of China's own military-industrial complex.
Formless and ancient things from the depths of our planet move beneath Los Angeles, unexpectedly setting fire to sidewalks and burning whole businesses to the ground. Welcome to urban life atop a still-active oil field.
Sliding around beneath the surface of Los Angeles is something dark, primordial, and without clear form. It seeps up into the city from below through even the smallest cracks and drains. Infernal, it can cause fires and explosions; toxic, it can debilitate, poison, and kill.
Near downtown Los Angeles, at 14th Place and Hill Street, a small extraction firm called the St. James Oil Corporation runs an active oil well. In 2006, the firm presided over a routine steam-injection procedure known as “well stimulation.” The purpose was simple: a careful and sustained application of steam would heat up, liquefy, and thus make available for easier harvesting some of the thick petroleum deposits, or heavy oil, beneath the neighborhood.
But things didn’t quite go as planned. As explained by the Center for Land Use Interpretation—a local non-profit group dedicated to documenting and analyzing land usage throughout the United States—“the subterranean pressure forced oily ooze and smells out of the ground,” causing a nauseating “goo” to bubble over “into storm drains, streets, and basements” as far as two blocks away.
The sudden appearance of this black tide beneath the neighborhood even destabilized the nearby road surface, leading to its emergency closure, and 130 people had to be evacuated. It took weeks to pump these toxic petroleum byproducts out of the basements and to resurface the street; the firm itself was later sued by the city.
While this was an industrial accident, hydrocarbons are, in fact, almost constantly breaking through the surface of Los Angeles, both in liquid and gaseous form. These are commonly known as seeps, and the most famous example is also an international tourist attraction: the La Brea Tar Pits, with its family-friendly museum on Wilshire Boulevard.
The “tar” here is actually liquid asphalt or pitch, and it is one of many reasons why humans settled the region in the first place. Useful both for waterproofing and for its flammability, this sticky substance has been exploited by humans in the region for literally thousands of years—and it has also given L.A. some of its most impressive paleontological finds.
[Image: Tar pushes up through cracks in the sidewalk on Wilshire Boulevard, near the La Brea Tar Pits; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
In other words, precisely because they are so dangerous, the tar pits are a veritable archive of extinct species; these include mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, and dire wolves, examples of which have been found fatally mired in the black mess seeping up from the deep. Groups of these now long-dead creatures once wandered across an otherworldly landscape of earthquakes and extinct volcanoes, an active terrain pockmarked with eerie bubbling cauldrons of flammable liquid asphalt.
What’s so interesting about contemporary life in Southern California is that this surreal, prehistoric landscape never really went anywhere: it’s simply been relegated to the background, invisibly buried beneath strip malls, car dealerships, and sushi restaurants. Every natural tar seep and artificial oil well here can be seen as an encounter with this older, stranger world trying to break back through into our present experience.
What humans choose to do with this primordial stuff leaking through the cracks can often be almost comical. Architect Ben Loescher, who has given tours of the region’s oil infrastructure for the Center for Land Use Interpretation, points out that many buildings near Lafayette Park must contend with a constant upwelling of asphalt. He sent me a photograph showing a line of orange utility buckets arranged as an ingenious but absurd stopgap measure against the endless and unstoppable goo.
[Image: A makeshift system for capturing the near-constant tar and liquid asphalt leaking up from below a building near Lafayette Park; photo by Ben Loescher].
Nearby, Loescher added, parking lots are a great place to see the onslaught. Many are constantly but slowly flooding with tar and asphalt, to the point that one lot—run by a karaoke club—is struck so badly that the tar is actually visible on Google Maps. “That parking lot is riddled with seeps, as well. When it gets hot, the parking lot sort of re-asphalts itself,” Loescher explains, “and they have to put down tarps on top of it so the cars don’t get stuck.” A much larger gravel lot across the street also exhibits multiple sites of seepage, as if pixelating from below with black matter.
Loescher emphasized that these sites are by no means limited to the La Brea Tar Pits. They can be found throughout the Los Angeles basin, beneath sidewalks, yard, parking lots, and even in people’s basements. To exaggerate for dramatic effect, it’s as if the premise of The Blob was at least partially inspired by a true story—one that has been taking place for hundreds of thousands of years throughout Southern California, and that involves, instead of a visitor from space, something ancient and pre-human forcing its way up from below.
[Image: Liquid asphalt leaking upward into the parking lot of a Los Angeles karaoke club; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
In a short book called Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles, writer William L. Fox explores the remnant gas leaks and oil seeps of the city. At times, it reads as if he is describing the backdrop of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Such is the strange and permanent apocalypse of 21st-century L.A.
Fox writes, for example, that “a methane vent opened up in the middle of Fairfax Street” back in 1985, and that it “burned uncontrollably for days before it could be put out.” At night, it was a world lit by flames. Astonishingly, he adds, in 1962 “a Hawthorne woman had a fire under her house—a house with no basement. She located the source of the problem when she went outside and touched a match to a crack in the sidewalk: A flame ran down to it.”
This city where sidewalks burn and sewers fill with oily ooze is a city built here almost specifically for that very reason; Los Angeles, in many ways, is a settlement founded on petroleum byproducts, and the oil industry for which the city was once known never actually left. It just got better at hiding itself.
It is already well known that there are oilrigs disguised in plain sight all over the city. The odd-looking tower behind Beverly Hills High School, for example, is actually a camouflaged oilrig; an active oil field runs beneath the classrooms and athletic fields. Even stranger, the enormous synagogue at Pico and Doheny is not a synagogue at all, but a movable drilling tower designed to look like a house of worship, as if bizarre ceremonies for conjuring a literal black mass out of the bowels of the Earth take place here, hidden from view. If you zoom in on Google Maps, you can just make out the jumbles of industrial machinery tucked away inside.
However, amidst all of this still-functional oil infrastructure, there are ruins: abandoned wells, capped drill sites, and derelict pumping stations that have effectively been erased from public awareness. These, too, play a role in the city’s subterranean fires and its poisonous breakouts of black ooze.
As Fox explains in Making Time, a labyrinth of aging pipelines and forgotten wells crisscrosses the city. He explains that the Salt Lake Oil Field—which underlies the La Brea Tar Pits, sprawls below an outdoor shopping center known as The Grove, and continues deep into the surrounding neighborhoods—once contained as many as 1,500 operative oil wells. However, most of these “have long since been abandoned and are virtually invisible,” he writes, and, alarmingly, “roughly 300 are unaccounted for.”
These “unaccounted for” oil wells are out of sight and out of mind—but it should not be assumed that they are safely or permanently capped. Indeed, the Salt Lake Oil Field actually “appears to be repressurizing with oil and water,” like an underground blister come back to life, Fox writes. This only raises the stakes of “a hazard already complicated by the lack of knowledge about the exact location of all the wells on the property.” Only 10 years ago, for example, “an orphaned well in Huntington Beach blew out in a gusher forty feet high, spraying oil and methane over one-half square mile, a hazardous-waste problem that will become more common.”
[Image: The Baldwin Hills old field; photo by Geoff Manaugh].
Due to its centrality, the Salt Lake field plays an outsized role in terms of strange petroleum events in the city. The Salt Lake was behind the multiday methane fire in the middle of Fairfax Avenue, for example, and behind arguably the most well known and certainly most destructive reminder of the city’s subterranean presence.
In 1989, in a busy strip mall at Fairfax and 3rd Street, a Ross Dress for Less began to fill with methane gas leaking up from a large pocket connected to the oil field below. Somehow, it had broken through the natural clay boundary that should have held it in place, and the methane thus easily seeped up into the storage rooms, closets, and retail galleries of the discount clothing giant.
Before long, the methane ignited and the entire store blew up.
This was by no means an insubstantial explosion—you should watch the aftermath on YouTube—as the entire façade of the building was blown to pieces, the roof collapsed, and dozens of people were disfigured by the detonation.
The resulting fires burned for hours. Small fires roared out of nearby sewer grates, and red and orange flames flickered out of even the tiniest cracks in the sidewalk, like some weird vision of Hell burning through the discount blouses and cheap drywall of this obliterated shopping center.
[Image: Flames burn through cracks in the sidewalk; screen grab from YouTube].
While reporting the tragedy, a local newscaster worryingly informed his viewers that it was simply “too early to tell where or when [the methane] might surface again”—in other words, that there could very well be further explosions. This paranoia—that there is something down there, some inhuman Leviathan stirring beneath the city, and that no one really knows when and where it will strike next—continues to this day.
Even at the time of the explosion, the possibility that city workers might inadvertently drill into a methane pocket beneath the neighborhood became one of the chief reasons for blocking the construction of a new subway line in the area. This same fear has recently resurfaced as the number one excuse for blocking a proposed subway through Beverly Hills.
Back in 2012, local parents released a video urging the city to stop the expansion of subterranean public transit through their neighborhood, concerned that it would cause Beverly Hills High School to explode. (The fact that stopping the subway would also keep certain economic undesirables out of their streets and shopping districts was just a fringe benefit.)
In any case, the narrative resonance of all this is impossible to deny. Formless and ancient things from the depths of our planet move beneath the city, unexpectedly setting fire to sidewalks and burning whole businesses to the ground. Taken out of context, this could be the plot of a new horror film—but it’s just urban life atop a still-active oil field.
As Matthew Coolidge, director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, explained it to me, the city “is really just a giant scab of petroleum-fueled activities,” an impermanently sealed cap atop this buried monstrosity.
It is worth considering, then, next time you step over a patch of tar on the sidewalk, that the black gloom still bubbling up into people’s yards and basements, still re-asphalting empty gravel parking lots, is actually an encounter with something undeniably old and elementally powerful.
In this sense, Los Angeles is more than just a city; it is a kind of interface between a petrochemical lifestyle of cars and freeways and the dark force that literally fuels it, a subterranean presence that predates us all by millions of years and that continues to wander freely beneath L.A.’s tangled streets and buildings.
(Note: This piece was originally published on The Daily Beast. I have also written about the La Brea Tar Pits and William L. Fox's book in Landscape Futures. Opening image: a close-up of Hell, from “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch, Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain).
As they explain in the accompanying, very brief artists' statement, "Precious metals and stones were mined out of technological objects and transformed back into mineral form. The artificial ore was constructed out of gold (Au), copper (Cu), tantalum (Ta), aluminium (Al) and whetstone; all taken from tools, machinery and computers that were sourced from a recently bankrupt factory."
Of course, our devices have been geology all along—refined aggregates of the Earth's surface repurposed as commercial properties and given newfound electrical life—but it's incredibly interesting to reverse-engineer from our phones, circuitboards, and hard drives entirely new mineral compounds.
In the same way that some of you might have tumbled rocks on your childhood desks for weeks at a time to scrape, abrade, and polish them down to a sparkling sheen, perhaps the mineworks of tomorrow will be benchtop recycling units extracting rare earth metals from obsolete consumer goods.
Armed with drills and ovens, we'll just cook our own devices down to a primordial goo that can be selectively reshaped into objects.
You might recall the discovery of so-called "plastiglomerates." As Science reported last summer, a "new type of rock cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals has begun forming on the shores of Hawaii." Part plastic, part rock, plastiglomerates are the new geology.
Put another way, this is terrestrial science in the age of the Anthropocene, discovering that even the rocks around us are, in a sense, artificial by-products of our own activities, industrial materials fossilized in an elaborate planetary masquerade that now passes for "nature."
Here, however, in Cohen's and Van Balen's work, these new, artistically fabricated conglomerates are more like alchemical distillations of everyday products: phones, radios, and computers speculatively cooked, simmered, bathed, acid-etched, and reworked into an emergent geology.
Noted scam artist and "Facebook fugitive" Paul Ceglia, hoping to escape from a recently imposed state of house-arrest, "sliced off his GPS ankle monitor and affixed it to a crudely built contraption in his rural New York residence," Ars Technica reports.
According to the U.S. Marshals, "While conducting a security sweep of the home, the Task Force Officers observed, among other things, a hand-made contraption connected to the ceiling, from which Ceglia’s GPS bracelet was hanging. The purpose of the contraption appeared to be to keep the bracelet in motion using a stick connected to a motor that would rotate or swing the bracelet."
The "contraption" appears to have been almost laughably basic, but it's not hard to imagine something more ambitious, complete with tracks wandering from room to room to make it appear that someone is truly inside the residence.
In fact, the idea of faking your own location through attaching your GPS anklet to a Roomba, for example, and letting it wander around the house all day is perversely brilliant, like something from a 21st-century Alfred Hitchcock film. Of course, it wouldn't take very long to deduce from the algorithmically perfect straight lines and zig-zag edge geometry of your Roomba's movements that it is not, in fact, a real person walking around in there—or perhaps it would just look like you've taken up some bizarre new form of home exercise.
But a much more believable algorithm for faking the movements of a real, living resident could be part of some dark-market firmware update—new algorithms for the becoming-criminal of everyday machines.
A whole new class of products could be devised: part burglar deterrent, part anti-police-tracking device, they would meander and bump their way through a home's interior, creating the geographic illusion that someone is moving around in there, passing room to room at certain moments.
It would be a GPS surrogate or implied resident, a locational ghost built from satellite signals and semi-autonomous robotic machines.
“Without vitamin C,” Anthony writes, “we cannot produce collagen, an essential component of bones, cartilage, tendons and other connective tissues. Collagen binds our wounds, but that binding is replaced continually throughout our lives. Thus in advanced scurvy”—reached when the body has gone too long without vitamin C—“old wounds long thought healed will magically, painfully reappear.”
In a sense, there is no such thing as healing. From paper cuts to surgical scars, our bodies are catalogues of wounds: imperfectly locked doors quietly waiting, sooner or later, to spring back open.
The Carlin Trend was discovered in north-central Nevada, near the town of Elko, in 1962. Some fifty years later, at this time of writing, it remains one of the world’s largest actively mined deposits of gold ore. In fact, the region has become something of a category-maker in the gold industry today, which describes analogous landscapes and ore bodies as “Carlin-type” deposits. The Carlin Trend is a standard, in other words: a referent against which others are both literally and rhetorically measured.
The trend’s discovery and subsequent exploitation—and the extraordinary negative landforms that have resulted from its exhumation—has been a story of nineteenth-century U.S. mining laws, legally dubious provisions governing public land, extraction industry multinationals, advanced geological modeling software, specialty equipment few people can name let alone operate, and genetically modified bacteria mixed into vats of gold-harvesting slurry.
There is gold in the Battle Mountain Formation, the range that runs southeast of town; gold in the alluvium to the west; gold in the Black Rock Desert to the northwest; gold in the Sheep Creek Range and in the Tuscarora Mountains to the northeast. The Tuscaroras are especially rich. Along the Carlin Trend, a forty-mile stretch of this range, are twelve deposits. Some people believe that a much richer swatch of ore, a deposit to rival South Africa’s Gold Reef, runs unbroken under the Carlin Trend, perhaps three thousand feet down—more than three times as deep as the deepest mines there now go.
“Some people believe”: more is hidden in the apparent neutrality of Seabrook’s phrase than we might at first suspect. Mining for gold—the actual, violent excision of waste rock from the earth, searching for ore—is never a question of finding a perfect, shiny lump of solid metal and carefully, surgically removing it from the planet. Gold is diffuse. It is now more often mined as particles, not blocks or even nuggets. Like glitter, it is scattered throughout the rocks around it.
In fact, the presence of gold, in many cases, can only be inferred. The angle at which local rock strata dip back into the planet, the direction water flows through the landscape, or the complex of other minerals and crystals locked in the rocks underground: these all, to varying degrees, act as telltale signatures for the famously coy king of metals.
Looking for these signatures entails a peculiar mix of local folklore and verified science, and the hunt—sometimes life-consuming, sometimes maddening—for signs is exhaustively documented by what Seabrook calls “prospecting paraphernalia: geological reports, assay figures, maps, contracts, aerial photographs, electromagnetic surveys, gravitometer readings, lawsuits, letters from people who think they have gold on their property, letters from people who know people who have gold on their property.”
Gold is less discovered, we might say, than interpreted.
The Carlin Trend has thus served as a test site, now in its fifty-first year, for various interpretive techniques, both scientific and superstitious. Specialty journals refer to the region’s “geochemical patterns”—only fragments of which are available to them to analyze for “the characteristics, signatures, and genesis of Nevada’s world-class gold systems”—the idea being that these might be found again elsewhere and thus be more instantly recognizable. Geologists track concentrations, contours, “metal zones,” and mineralized fractures; they build models of “stacked geochemical anomalies” in the earth below, hoping to piece together an accurate model of the gold ore’s location.
The language used to describe these deposits is often extraordinary. We read, for instance, that discontinuous ore bodies apparently produced at different “stages of mineralization” in the earth’s history might, in fact, be “part of a single event that evolved chemically through time.” That is, one state-sized geological event—with titanic embryos merging and splitting inside the earth—delicately infused into the landscape from below as slow pulses of mineral-rich magmatic fluid freeze into spidery veins of precious metal. Or we read about “anomaly-related mineral assemblages,” millions of years’ worth of “mineralizing events,” and “geochemical halos in this part of the Carlin Trend.” Industrial descriptions of the earth’s interior lend an unexpected poetry to the act of mining.
Another way of saying all this is that mind-bogglingly large terrestrial events, occurring invisibly below ground in rock formations we can only measure indirectly—scanning the earth for hidden signatures—produce ore bodies, the excavation, dismemberment, and eventual global distribution of which shapes human economic history in turn.
In any case, the form of a gold deposit itself must be mapped and clarified before excavation can begin. The shape of the ensuing pit is not the result of frantic, directionless digging, but of a carefully controlled design process. The word “design” is used deliberately here, even if the shape of the pit is orchestrated not by aesthetics but by the needs of financial rationality. Using proprietary graphics software—similar in function to visual effects programs used in film, gaming, and architecture—the ore body is predictively 3D-modeled.
Mining, at this point, becomes less an act of extraction than of physical verification: machines and their profit-minded operators pursue the outlines of a virtual form by gradually expanding the mine’s target zones, in effect checking to see if the geologists’ models were right.
mining engineers are basically designers. They develop all these fragmentary data into models, which become the design of the pit itself. … But then what happens is, based on gold prices, the pit model changes. In other words, if the gold price or the mineral price is higher, then the pit gets wider as it becomes cost-effective to mine areas of lower concentration. This happens nearly in real time—the speed of the machines digging the pit can change over the course of the day based on the price of gold, so the geometry of the pit is utterly parametric, modeling these distant financial calculations.
In essence, Young suggests, mining engineers produce and explore speculative models of gold distribution in the rocks below ground. Using surprisingly low-res data taken from seismic tests and weighing that data against equipment availability, labor costs, and, most importantly, the internationally recognized price of gold, the extraordinary ballet of machines can begin.
This then becomes predictive on a much larger scale, as well. By constantly refining their models of how exactly gold forms in the first place, and where and how it can be mined most effectively, geologists can understand where—and, to some extent, predict when—future ore bodies might accumulate. Interestingly, these future deposits will appear on a timescale that far exceeds human civilization—so, while human miners most likely won’t be around to exploit them, it’s nonetheless intriguing to know that serpent-like veins of precious metal are incubating in the darkness beneath us.
Here we return to Seabrook, who warns that “there is a good deal of poetry in these figures,” of ounces mined and subterranean veins discovered. “They are based on statistical models, a kind of three-dimensional game of connect the dots played by a computer.”
These are then treated explicitly and formally as works of art: Seabrook points out “a computer-generated three-dimensional picture of the ore body, dry-mounted and framed,” hanging on a geologist’s office wall. Call it the new Subterranean Romantic:
Mining people have a habit of stretching the metaphor when they talk about their ore bodies. They say how beautiful, how satisfying, how tantalizing their ore body is, they make hourglass shapes with their hands, knead with their fingers, smooth with their palms as they talk.
These gorgeous bodies, removed from the earth, leave scars: precisely designed but roughly implemented holes—exit wounds of temporally contingent value—clearly and deliriously visible from above.
The very idea that gold has value is a funny thing. Aside from a few basic industrial uses, gold’s value is almost entirely ornamental—that is, it is agreed upon by financial traders and metals futures markets, even if no actual gold changes hands. Gold comes out of one, very carefully designed hole in the ground—whether in Nevada, South Africa, or Western Australia—only, most likely, to be interred again in another part of the world in a bank vault or federal reserve, where it is precisely gold’s removal from direct exchange that augments its value and its mystery.
This “formless form,” however, undergoes a strange—we might say alchemical—transformation, from shining metal to the rarefied super-object known as money. In a long description based on a memoir by Captain Amasa Delano, Taussig recounts the nineteenth-century process of minting coins from gold bullion:
The gold ore was wetted and kneaded by blacks treading on it with their feet on a paved brick surface after which they put mercury on it so as to separate out the gold. Then the metal was heated, becoming red as blood. To get the liquid metal to run from its crucible, the spout was touched with a stick with a piece of cloth around it. When this stick made contact, there was a flash and the metal began to run in a stream not much thicker than a pipe stem. The bars of gold formed were subsequently squeezed flat by rollers until the thickness of a dollar or doubloon, by which time the bars had become sheets four feet long. A powerful press cut coins out from these thin sheets like a cookie cutter, and the pieces were turned to receive a milled edge. Then came the weighing.
For Taussig, this process reveals the machinations “both mysterious and everyday” by which a mineral becomes money—that is, how “gold and silver coins become enchanted, material things, aglow with a power emanating from deep within.” This base matter has been transformed, given exchange-value through formal regularity and sent off to participate in a global system of monetary transactions.
Gold coins are thus but one of the “minutiae in which the supernatural is secularized”: a haunted mineral is pulled from the earth and given an uncanny second life elsewhere.
The spectral mathematics that can turn reserves of gold into abstract instruments of monetary exchange—into financial products and debt instruments, derivatives and funds—operates through a barely comprehensible carnival of surrogates flashing back and forth through the global marketplace. Until the end of the Bretton Woods system in August 1971, when the US dollar was unilaterally decoupled from the international gold standard, gold served as a reliable, universally recognized equivalent for economic exchange.
Gold, in the words of Jean-Joseph Goux, himself citing Marx, had value precisely because it could so effectively disappear into the “circulation of substitutes.” This is a logic of exchange by which Object A can be traded for Object B, as long as we agree that Object B also refers, off-stage, to something else entirely: some standard or reserve for which it acts as a practical surrogate.
Before 1971, that off-stage presence—that silent original, sleeping in a state of eternal reservation—was gold.
To say, then, that there is an “economy” is thus to use shorthand for what Goux describes as “a regulated process of equivalents and substitutions,” whereby stand-ins, equivalents, and acceptable replacements all interact in occulted reference to an absentee original. The natural hard matter of gold, artificially extracted from the earth, thus becomes caught up in a supernatural system of objects: coins, bills, and derivatives—future duplicates and doubles.
In this context, the ongoing attempts to return the United States to the gold standard—by, for instance, perennial Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul—can be seen as an almost folkloristic attempt to put the genie of infinite derivative exchange back in the bottle.
Sites like Nevada’s Carlin Trend thus serve as base points for this process, emitting endless phantasms in an economic fiction of equivalents—derivative products that refer to one another in a superstition of indirect exchange referred to as the economy—to such an extent that we might say these mines can never be refilled. Or, more accurately, they can only be overfilled, stuffed beyond capacity with the carnival of substitutes their hollowing-out has, however inadvertently, unleashed.
In 2007, David Maisel began work on a group of photographs called “American Mine,” part of a larger and older series known as “The Mining Project.” These images document, in extraordinary abstract swaths of color, the emergent geometries of mines along the Carlin Trend.
Scattered across Maisel’s images is a forensic survey of cuts and incisions—wounds that will outlive us, scars that won’t go away—older surgeries through which modernity has, in effect, been created. The mines of the Carlin Trend remain unhealed—in fact, year on year, they are growing—a raw scurvy of rocks exposed on a scale so monumental that geologists estimate mines, not cities, will be the final trace of humanity left visible in a hundred million years’ time.
Vast terraced bowls step down—and down and, impossibly, further down—tracking dead faults and mineralization fronts on a scale only made clear when we notice 16-ton trucks like specks of dust on canyon walls. Discolored oceans of chemical runoff wash across vehicle tracks with acid tides. Retaining walls and stabilized slopes loom over assembled superscapes of mine detritus, abandoned shells of industrial insects dwarfed by the world they’ve helped create.
In these scenes, geotextile mats have all but replaced the earth’s surface, offering instead a deathless, replicant topography. Artificial hills, each uncannily and exactly like its neighbor, roll from one side of the frame to the other, shifting in tandem with commodities prices, their malleable geography thus forever resistant to mapping. The mines grow and metastasize as voids: storm fronts of negative space exploding with their own slow thunder into the planet.
What is of particular interest in Maisel’s “American Mine” series is its revelation of the injuries at the start of the commodity chain: planetary wounds, seemingly beyond the breadth of nature, out of which commodities have been extracted for later exchange.
The production of economically recognizable objects can thus be seen as a kind of terrestrial focusing: out of the chaos of the mine site, with great lakes clouded by geochemical effluent and abstract landforms like ritual mounds from human prehistory, pristine products eventually emerge, assembled from these heavy elements torn so roughly from the ground. Out of the carcinogenic discord of rock dust, circuit boards appear.
In a sense, it is surprising that the computers, phones, batteries, television sets, and other mundane electronics that fill the markets of the world are so free of this fallout, so astringently cleansed of the geological evidence of their own creation. Or perhaps we might say that it is precisely this stripping-away of a product’s elemental birth that gives it its later value and utility. Such products are ironically de-terrestrialized: washed of the very planet from which they came.
• • •
I owe a huge thank you to David Maisel and editor Alan Rapp for inviting me to participate in the Black Maps book, which is an absolutely gorgeous compendium of Maisel's work, as well as to Sina Najafi for his editorial feedback before this essay ran in Cabinet Magazine. You can see some photos of Black Mapsover at the publisher's website.
For those of you in Los Angeles, meanwhile, Maisel has a new show opening this spring—on March 26th, 2015—at the Mark Moore Gallery. Check back at this link in the weeks to come for more information.
Finally, if you would like to read some previous posts here on BLDGBLOG about Maisel's work, don't miss "The Fall" or "Library of Dust," among many other short posts; and be sure to read the interview with David Maisel published in The BLDGBLOG Book.
BLDGBLOG ("building blog") is written by Geoff Manaugh. The opinions expressed here are my own; they do not reflect the views of my friends, editors, employers, publishers, or colleagues, with whom this blog is not affiliated.