The Supersurface of Architectural Diaspora
Like some Nigerian scammer, an article by a London rag baits its readers with this fantastic headline: Pictured: The 1,500-ton Catholic church moved 248ft and rotated 90 degrees to make way for a new road.
When you actually read the half dozen or so sentences, you learn that it wasn't the cathedral that was moved. It wasn't even “part of the church building” but an altogether unattached structure.
However, it's still a very interesting bit of news, more for us because of that circular tracks where it turned 90 degrees.
Those tracks will be disassembled soon, if not already. There's a new road to build. But imagine if that wasn't the case. Infilled with paving materials of local variety, they become part of a new plaza instead — the rectory's nomadic past paved into the landscape.
The landscape is its history.
When it rains, water will collect and flow through shallow channels, following the roundabout path the building once took. Perhaps the whole thing is a rainwater harvesting scheme. When dry, little children, arms shoulder high in imitation of airplanes, will run along these grooves imagined as runways.
Parishioners and pedestrians alike will trip on raised bricks. Bruised knees, sprained ankles, cracked skulls. But those who know the history of the site well, those attuned to the vagaries of their own built environment, will not suffer injuries.
But soon no one will remember the story behind the plaza's intricate parterres. Even the tourist guides will have forgotten, telling their weary travelers that it's just one big cardinal compass, the center of which is the city's Kilometre Zero.
Until, of course, a landscape historian comes along and rediscovers its true function, just in time because the rectory has to be moved to make way for a new road.
Later on, the same scholar goes on to make another awesome discovery: Michelangelo's geometric design for the Piazza del Campidoglio wasn't really intended to help systematize the spatial experience of this jumbled corner of the Capitoline hill.
In actuality, the sculptor-sometimes-urban-planner was merely tracing over the leftover transport system used by victorious Roman generals to move architectural spoils during their triumph. It is also the same system co-opted by later popes to move gigantic relics of saints during Jubilee Year.
Misreading his research, some wacko landscape archi-blogger will publish a post with the headline: Illustrated: St. Peter's makes a pilgrimage around Rome during Jubilee Year 1625. The image of Michelangelo's dome sailing through a sea of architecture, through an eternal maelstrom of history, hypnotized him too much to bother re-reading the PDF file for accuracy's sake.
The following day, he'll offer up a theory of his own: it's some weird Freemasonic machine that can control the fabric of space-time, a direct line to God. But the instructions have been lost over the centuries so now it's up to a subsect of Opus Dei, headed by an albino landscape architect to re-learn how to operate it.
In any case, with some exceptions, like N55's insect-like flood-averting Walking House, moving large structures usually takes two routes: on specially laid tracks or on wheels. The latter seems to be the most common, because it provides better maneuverability and has less infrastructural imprint. It's probably cheaper, too.
But wouldn't it be more fascinating if they were all moved via rails, pressed down into the asphalt so as to make them flush with the surface of the road and then left there once the buildings have reached their destinations?
For whatever reasons — perhaps to escape coastal erosion and sea level rise; to join an enclave of Victorian and Queen Anne houses, all refugees from neighborhoods ravaged by generic condominiums; a concerted policy to homogenize neighborhoods into tourist hot spots; or post-oil, post-capitalist, post-interstate American mobility — more buildings are displaced on old and newly-built rails.
Year after year, then decade after decade, this new supersuface of mobility keeps getting added to, continually overlaid with fresh tracks. It becomes so thick that you no longer need to install new lines, because there is enough tracks and junctions to take you anywhere from anywhere.
Got a job in another town; need to be with your own creative types in the inner city; or can no longer pay the rent in once affordable city neighborhoods and so must look in the urban hinterlands? Simply jack up your house and plop it into the network.
Gentrification and urban cleansing, white flight, reverse white flight, the mythical creative class, 1960s speculative architecture, 21st century blogger fantasia: all recorded on the landscape.
You might need, however, to pick off some asphalt like a dentist to a tartar build-up and fell some trees and uproot some shrubs. Or even temporarily move some buildings out of the way. But you'll eventually get there.
So expansive will this network become that scientists begin to consider it a new geological stratum: a homo-sedimentary layer of reconstituted iron ores. Future geologists and archaeologists will use it for dating artifacts. So will historians use it to re-trace migrations and reconstruct how cities once looked like.
Like the Public Land Survey System, it demands all landscape architects to answer to it.