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.

Beneath the Streets, Barrel Vaults

[Image: Barrel vaults beneath Warren Street, Manhattan; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

I was walking along Warren Street in Manhattan yesterday evening when I saw what appeared to be a series of brick barrel vaults uncovered by roadworks.

There was no one around, so no one to ask whether it was a deliberate historical excavation or just some street repair, but the incision seemed remarkably, even archaeologically, precise, complete with an exposed water pipe left hanging in midair.

[Image: Barrel vaults beneath Warren Street, Manhattan; Instagram by BLDGBLOG].

Discovering brick vaults beneath the streets of Manhattan seems both totally unsurprising—in the sense that seemingly anything can and will be found there, in the otherworldly cosmos that is the island of Manhattan—and a total shock, as if something more appropriate for Rome had installed itself beneath the streets unnoticed.

Perhaps it's someone's cellar roof and it needs new brickwork; perhaps it's some strange old Bazalgettian sewer outflow linking up to the city's older drains; or perhaps there's a vast cobweb of vaults extending everywhere beneath the streets of Lower Manhattan, holding up the streets and buildings like an architectural super-foam, huge caverns of masonry and brick in a labyrinth of basements inside of basements, and this is just the first glimpse of the upper floor.

The City Has Eyes

[Image: Photo by BLDGBLOG].

In the distant summer of 2002, I worked for a few months at Foster + Partners in London, tasked with helping to archive Foster's old sketchbooks, hand-drawings, and miscellaneous other materials documenting dozens of different architectural projects over the past few decades.

On a relatively slow afternoon, I was given the job of sorting through some old cupboards full of videocassettes—VHS tapes hoarded more or less randomly, sometimes even without labels, in a small room on the upper floor of the office.

Amongst taped interviews from Foster's various TV appearances, foreign media documentaries about the office's international work, and other bits of A/V ephemera, there were a handful of tapes that consisted of nothing but surveillance footage shot inside the old Wembley Stadium.

It was impossible to know what the tapes—unlabeled and shoved in the back of the cupboard—actually documented, but the strange visual language of CCTV is such that something always seems about to happen. There is a strange urgency to surveillance footage, despite its slow, almost glacial pace: a feeling of intense, often dreadful anticipation. A crime, an attack, an explosion or fire is, it seems, terrifyingly imminent.

Unsure of what I was actually watching for, it began to feel a bit sinister: had there been an attack or even a murder in the old Wembley Stadium, prior to Foster + Partners' new design at the site, and, for whatever reason, Foster held on to security tapes of the incident? Was I about to see a stabbing or a brawl, a small riot in the corridors?

More abstractly, could an architect somehow develop an attachment, a dark and unhealthy fascination, with crimes that had occurred inside a structure he or she designed—or, in this case, in a building he or she would ultimately demolish and replace?

It felt as if I was watching police evidence, sitting there, alone on a summer afternoon, waiting nervously for the depicted crime to begin.

The relationship not just between architecture and crime, but between architects and crime began to captivate me.

Of course, it didn't take long to realize what was really happening, which was altogether less exciting but nevertheless just as fascinating: these unlabeled security tapes hidden in a cupboard at Foster + Partners hadn't captured a crime, riot, or any other real form of suspicious activity.

Rather, the tapes had been saved in the office archive as an unusual form of architectural research: surveillance footage of people milling about near the bathrooms or walking around in small groups through the cavernous back-spaces of the old Wembley stadium would help to show how the public really used the space.

I was watching video surveillance being put to use as a form of building analysis—security tapes as a form of spatial anthropology.

[Image: Unrelated surveillance footage].

Obsessed by this, and with surveillance in general, I went on to write an entire (unpublished) novel about surveillance in London, as well as to see the security industry—those who watch the city—as always inadvertently performing a second function.

Could security teams and surveillance cameras in fact be a privileged site for viewing, studying, and interpreting urban activity? Is architecture somehow more interesting when viewed through CCTV?

To no small extent, that strange summertime task thirteen years ago went on to inform my next book, A Burglar's Guide to the City, which comes out in October.

The book explores how criminals tactically misuse the built environment, with a strong counter-focus on how figures of authority—police helicopter crews, FBI Special Agents, museum security supervisors, and architects—see the city in a very literal sense.

This includes the specialty optical equipment used during night flights over the metropolis, the surveillance gear that is often deployed inside large or complex architectural structures to record "suspicious" activity, and how even the numbering systems used for different neighborhoods can affect the ability of the police to interrupt crimes that might be occurring there.

I'll be talking about all of this stuff (and quite a bit more, including the sociological urban films of William H. Whyte, the disturbing thrill of watching real-life CCTV footage—such as the utterly strange Elisa Lam tape—and what's really happening inside CCTV control rooms) this coming Friday night, May 8, as part of "a series about spectatorship" at UnionDocs in Brooklyn.

The event is ticketed, but stop by, if you get a chance—I believe there is a free cocktail reception afterward—and, either way, watch out for the release of A Burglar's Guide to the City in October 2015.

The Town That Creep Built

[Image: A curb in Hayward reveals how much the ground is drifting due to “fault creep”: the red-painted part is slowly, but relentlessly, moving north. Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

South of San Francisco, a whole town is being deformed by plate tectonics. These are the slow but relentless landscape effects known as “fault creep.”

An earlier version of this post was first published on The Daily Beast.

The signs that something’s not right aren’t immediately obvious, but, once you see them, they're hard to tune out.

Curbs at nearly the exact same spot on opposite sides of the street are popped out of alignment. Houses too young to show this level of wear stand oddly warped, torqued out of synch with their own foundations, their once strong frames off-kilter. The double yellow lines guiding traffic down a busy street suddenly bulge northward—as if the printing crew came to work drunk that day—before snapping back to their proper place a few feet later.

This is Hollister, California, a town being broken in two slowly, relentlessly, and in real time by an effect known as “fault creep.” A surreal tide of deformation has appeared throughout the city.

[Image: “Fault creep” bends the curbs in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

As if its grid of streets and single-family homes was actually built on an ice floe, the entire west half of Hollister is moving north along the Calaveras Fault, leaving its eastern streets behind.

In some cases, doors no longer fully close and many windows now open only at the risk of getting stuck (some no longer really close at all).

Walking through the center of town near Dunne Park offers keen observers a hidden funfair of skewed geometry.

[Image: 359 Locust Avenue, Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

For example, go to the house at 359 Locust Avenue.

The house itself stands on a different side of the Calaveras Fault than its own front walkway. As if trapped on a slow conveyor built sliding beneath the street, the walk is being pulled inexorably north, with the effect that the path is now nearly two feet off-center from the porch it still (for the time being) leads to.

[Image: The walkway is slowly creeping north, no longer centered with the house it leads to; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In another generation, if it’s not fixed, this front path will be utterly useless, leading visitors straight into a pillar.

Or walk past the cute Victorian on 5th Street. Strangely askew, it seems frozen at the start of an unexpected metamorphosis.

[Image: Photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Geometrically, it’s a cube being forced to become a rhomboid by the movements of the fault it was unknowingly built upon, an architectural dervish interrupted before it could complete its first whirl.

Now look down at your feet at the ridged crack spreading through the asphalt behind you, perfectly aligned with the broken curbs and twisted homes on either side.

This is the actual Calaveras Fault, a slow shockwave of distortion forcing its way through town, bringing architectural mutation along with it.

[Images: The Calaveras Fault pushes its way through Hollister; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

The ceaseless geometric tumult roiling just beneath the surface of Hollister brings to mind the New Orleans of John McPhee, as described in his legendary piece for The New Yorker, "Atchafalaya."

There, too, the ground is active and constantly shifting—only, in New Orleans, it's not north or south. It's up or down. The ground, McPhee explains, is subsiding.

"Many houses are built on slabs that firmly rest on pilings," he writes. "As the turf around a house gradually subsides, the slab seems to rise." This leads to the surreal appearance of carnivalesque spatial side-effects, with houses entirely detached from their own front porches and stairways now leading to nowhere:
Where the driveway was once flush with the floor of the carport, a bump appears. The front walk sags like a hammock. The sidewalk sags. The bump up to the carport, growing, becomes high enough to knock the front wheels out of alignment. Sakrete appears, like putty beside a windowpane, to ease the bump. The property sinks another foot. The house stays where it is, on its slab and pilings. A ramp is built to get the car into the carport. The ramp rises three feet. But the yard, before long, has subsided four. The carport becomes a porch, with hanging plants and steep wooden steps. A carport that is not firmly anchored may dangle from the side of a house like a third of a drop-leaf table. Under the house, daylight appears. You can see under the slab and out the other side. More landfill or more concrete is packed around the edges to hide the ugly scene.
Like McPhee's New Orleans, Hollister is an inhabitable catalog of misalignment and disorientation, bulging, bending, and blistering as it splits right down the middle.

And there’s more. Stop at the north end of 6th Street, for example, just across from Dunne Park, and look back at the half-collapsed retaining wall hanging on for dear life in front of number 558.

It looks like someone once backed a truck into it—but it’s just evidence of plate tectonics, the ground bulging northward without regard for bricks or concrete.

[Images: A fault-buckled wall and sidewalk bearing traces of planetary forces below; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

In fact, follow this north on Google Maps and you’ll find a clean line connecting this broken wall to the jagged rupture crossing the street in the photographs above, to the paper-thin fault dividing the house from its own front walk on Locust Avenue.

So what’s happening to Hollister?

“Fault creep” is a condition that results when the underlying geology is too soft to get stuck or to accumulate tectonic stress: in other words, the deep rocks beneath Hollister are slippery, more pliable, and behave a bit like talc. Wonderfully but unsurprisingly, the mechanism used to study creep is called a creepmeter.

The ground sort of oozes past itself, in other words, a slow-motion landslide at a pace that would be all but imperceptible if it weren’t for the gridded streets and property lines being bent out of shape above it.

[Image: A curb and street drain popped far out of alignment in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In a sense, Hollister is an urban-scale device for tracking tectonic deformation: attach rulers to its porches and curbs, and you could even take measurements.

The good news is that the large and damaging earthquakes otherwise associated with fault movement—when the ground suddenly breaks free every hundred years or so in a catastrophic surge—are not nearly as common here.

Instead, half a town can move north by more than an inch every five years and all that most residents will ever feel is an occasional flutter.

[Images: Crossing onto the Pacific Plate (heading west) in Parkfield; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

I spoke with Andy Snyder from the U.S. Geological Survey about the phenomenon.

Snyder works on an experiment known as the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth, or SAFOD, which has actually drilled down through the San Andreas Fault to monitor what’s really happening down there, studying the landscape from below through sensitive probes installed deep in the active scar tissue between tectonic plates.

On Snyder’s advice, I made my way out to one of the greatest but most thoroughly mundane monuments to fault creep in the state of California. This was in Parkfield, a remote town with a stated population of 18 where Snyder and SAFOD are both based, and where fault creep is particularly active.

In Parkfield there is a remarkable road bridge: a steel structure that has been anchored to either side of the San Andreas Fault like a giant, doomed staple. Anyone who crosses it in either direction is welcomed onto a new tectonic plate by friendly road signs—but the bridge itself is curiously bent, warped like a bow as its western anchorage moves north toward San Francisco.

It distorts more and more every day of the month, every year, due to the slow effects of fault creep. Built straight, it is already becoming a graceful curve.

[Image: Looking east at the North American Plate in Parkfield; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Parkfield is also approximately where fault creep begins in the state, Snyder explained, marking the southern edge of a zone of tectonic mobility that extends up roughly to Hollister and then begins again on a brief stretch of the Hayward Fault in the East Bay.

Indeed, another suggestion of Snyder’s was that I go up to visit a very specific corner in the city of Hayward, where the curb at the intersection of Rose and Prospect Streets has long since been shifted out of alignment.

Over the past decade—most recently, in 2011—someone has actually been drawing little black arrows on the concrete to help visualize how far the city has drifted in that time.

The result is something like an alternative orientation point for the city, a kind of seismic meridian—or perhaps doomsday clock—by which Hayward’s ceaseless cleaving can be measured.

[Images: A moving curb becomes an inadvertent compass for measuring seismic energy in Hayward; photos by Geoff Manaugh].

Attempting to visualize earthquakes on a thousand-year time span, or to imagine the pure abstraction of seismic energy, can be rather daunting; this makes it all the more surprising to realize that even the tiniest details hidden in plain sight, such as cracks in the sidewalk, black sharpie marks on curbs, or lazily tilting front porches, can actually be real-time evidence that California is on the move.

But it is exactly these types of signs that function as minor landmarks for the seismic tourist—and, for all their near-invisibility, visiting them can still provide a mind-altering experience.

Back in Hollister, Snyder warned, many of these already easily missed signs through which fault creep is made visible are becoming more and more hard to find.

The town is rapidly gentrifying, he pointed out, and Hollister’s population is beginning to grow as its quiet and leafy streets fill up with commuters who can no longer afford to live closer to Silicon Valley or the Bay. This means that the city’s residents are now just a bit faster to repair things, just a bit quicker to tear down structurally unsound houses.

One of the most famous examples of fault creep, for example—a twisted and misshapen home formerly leaning every which way at a bend in Locust Avenue—is gone. But whatever replaces it will face the same fate.

After all, the creep is still there, like a poltergeist disfiguring things from below, a malign spirit struggling to make itself visible.

Beneath the painted eaves and the wheels of new BMWs, the landscape is still on the move; the deformation is just well hidden, a denied monstrosity reappearing millimeter by millimeter despite the quick satisfaction of weekend repair jobs. Tumid and unstoppable, there is little that new wallpaper or re-poured driveways can do to disguise it.

[Image: Haphazard concrete patchwork in a formerly straight sidewalk betrays the slow action of fault creep; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

Snyder remembered one more site in Hollister that he urged me to visit on my way out of town.

In the very center of Hollister’s Dunne Park, a nice and gentle swale “like a chaise longue,” in his words, has been developing.

Expecting to find just a small bump running through the park, I was instead surprised to see that there is actually a rather large grassy knoll forming there, a rolling and bucolic hill that few people would otherwise realize is an active tectonic fault.

[Image: A fault-caused grassy knoll rises in the center of Dunne Park in Hollister; photo by Geoff Manaugh].

In fact, he said, residents have been entirely unperturbed by this mysterious appearance of a brand new landform in the middle of their city, seeing it instead as an opportunity for better sunbathing. Fault creep is not without its benefits, he joked.

Snyder laughed as he described the sight of a dozen people and their beach towels, all angling themselves upward toward the sun, getting tan in a mobile city with the help of plate tectonics.

[Note: An earlier version of this piece was first published on The Daily Beast (where I did not choose the original headline). I owe a huge thanks to Andy Snyder for the phone conversation in which we discussed fault creep; and the book Finding Fault in California: An Earthquake Tourist's Guide by Susan Elizabeth Hough was also extremely useful. Finally, please also note that, if you do go to Hollister or Hayward to photograph these sites, be mindful of the people who actually live there, as they do not necessarily want crowds of strangers gathering outside their homes].