(Im)possible Chicago #15
This is the Chicago which has incubated a transatlantic fusion of Vogue Dramatics and parkour. Night and day, the David Belles and the Alloura Zions zig-zag through its grid, a cross-dressing of the Situationist pavements of the banlieues with the inner city ballrooms of the P.U.S.S.Y.C.U.N.T.Y.B.I.T.C.H. Up on the aerial dance floors threading together the city's boom-era tenements, they trace the horizontal falls of Yves Klein and Don DeLillo. During the ball season, they battle it out on invisible catwalks like Archaeopteryxes, their legs akimbo and their talon-like arms swiveling and pirouetting.
(Im)possible Chicago #12-14
At the state dinner, the mayor asked why they had built a full scale model of Chicago in the Gobi Desert, near the village of Huangyangtan.
The Chinese president replied, “Oh, that. That's just part of our anti-desertification program. We hope the city will stop sandstorms from forming and blocks sand dunes from encroaching.”
At the state dinner, the mayor asked why they had built a full scale model of Chicago in the Gobi Desert, near the village of Huangyangtan.
The Chinese president replied, “Oh, that. There's a huge demand for housing in China, and we hope the city will satiate that demand.”
At the state dinner, the mayor asked why they had built a full scale model of Chicago in the Gobi Desert, near the village of Huangyangtan.
The Chinese president replied, “Oh, that. That's just the outdoor studio sets for Jia Zhangke's upcoming epic The New World.”
(Im)possible Chicago #11
Forgoing the option of expanding in the cramped quarters of the Museum Campus as well as out into Lake Michigan, the Shedd Aquarium instead took to the skies, tethering and propping up on stilts rivers encased in glass.
From anywhere in the city, you can look up and find eels slithering their way through interlocking tubular loop-de-loops. You can also watch schools of tuna rhyming with the murmurations of starlings, something that never fails to mesmerize.
Popular among lovers are the bioluminescent critters. At night they twinkle and glow above where stars have long ago been blotted out by urban light pollution. Surely, under this shimmering airborne ocean, a very romantic evening can be had.
The most popular attraction, of course, are the humpback whales soundtracking the city with their plaintive songs. This is but the latest leg on their Darwinian odyssey: from sea to land then back to sea again, and finally, to the skies. If the entire structure collapses, well, it's back to land again in a sort of Douglas Adams dysfantasia.
Near where the loops dip to within a few feet off the ground—usually in the park—children play next to Charybdis, the Kraken and the Leviathan.
(Im)possible Chicago #10
Every ten years the fires come.
Starting from Land Grant Fire Ignition Stations strategically gridded on the outskirts of the city, they come howling, coronal, as though the prairies have sprouted solar prominences arcing and looping eastward towards the lake.
First they stream through the fire avenues of the Emerald Necklace, extended, renetworked and planted with highly combustible trees and shrubbery for this decennial event. Once a neighborhood is surrounded, the flaming noose contracts and gorges on the trapped kindling.
Those who evacuate—taking this as a reason to go on vacation—live in Shinto-built bungalows. Before leaving, they move what belongings they want saved, if any, down to their climate-controlled basements or off-site in self-storage units, also hermetically sealed. These are all tiny spaces, for no one in the city is a pack rat.
The last on the checklist is to turn on the GPS transmitter. This will make it easier for them to locate their charred homestead in what will certainly be a landscape devoid of recognizable landmarks, let alone passable roads. When they do return, they can rebuild on the same site, but they can also choose to make camp elsewhere. It is the basements that are deeded. The land and air rights are not parceled out.
Most residents stay to ride out the firestorm, however, holed up in their thickly concreted bungalows. They only need to stock up on food and water for a week and, most critically, tap in to the city's underground network of O2 tunnels to supply their bunkers with breathable air.
To pass the time, they tune in to The Burn Channel, watching Anderson Cooper survey the ongoing conflagration inside his Nomex suit. A solitary astronaut on the surface of Mercury.
They check when the nearest firefront will singe through their street, scorch their gardens and evaporate the past decade's ornamental fads from their home's exterior. The sights of skyscrapers collapsing are eagerly anticipated.
Correspondingly, they participate in online public forums to design a new city. All aspects of the city in waiting are decided by popular vote. This democratic form of urban planning have in the past resulted in wildly experimental urban forms and at other times, carbon copies of the White City.
Whatever city they get next, it will be yet another fleeting thing, turning fugitive in ten years' time.
Following is an excerpt from The Book of Scotlands by Momus, an outline of “one hundred and fifty-six Scotlands which currently do not exist anywhere. At a time when functional independence seems to be a real possibility for Scotland—and yet no one is quite sure what that means—a delirium of visions, realistic and absurd, is necessary.”
It is reprinted here with permission.
On October 14, 2035, Scotland was suddenly covered by a black swan.
The swan swanned down from space, where it had been flying largely unobserved (some astronomers, alerted to irregularities, had declared that certain stars were disappearing and reappearing).
The swan and Scotland were a very similar size and shape; an excellent match.
The swan draped itself over Scotland, covering part of the landmass with its black feathers and clinging to the coasts with its claws and beak.
Scotland became, of course, very dark and warm.
There was also a large quantity of swan dung falling in Ayrshire.
A state of emergency was initially declared, but soon people became calm.
Streetlights were left on night and day, but the extra electricity was more than made up for by the warmth of the swan's body. This reduced heating and insulation costs. And there was a very pleasant smell coming from the swan's body.
Satellite imagery showed Scots how the bird looked from space, and most agreed that the impression created was a good one. It was as if Scotland had draped itself in an expensive swan-feather coat.
Other nations were filled with admiration, and some jealousy.
Scotland's tourist industry boomed as visitors all over the world came to experience life under the swan and fill their lungs with the swan's pleasant perfume (lard, fir, salt).
Sometimes when you drove to the top of a mountainous road (like A93 to Braemar, or the Tornapress to Applecross Road) your car roof would scrape the swan's feathers and the bird would shuffle slightly to give you more room.
The swan was, on the whole, considerate. However, not all Scots were willing to respond in kind. Two days after its arrival, one small boy attempted to set the swan on fire by walking to the top of a mountain with a cigarette lighter. The swan's greased feathers failed to ignite, but the bird was irritated and pecked the boy fatally with its beak.
On Guy Fawkes Day the government imposed a strict fireworks ban, but some stray rockets tickled the swan's underbelly. Fortunately, it was asleep at the time.
The government asked the army to prepare a report on how to get rid of the swan, should the need arise. The army studied the problem and concluded that nothing should be done. All munitions fired at the swan would rebound on Scotland, with disastrous consequences.
The Americans also confirmed that their nuclear missiles would be useless against the black swan. CIA offers to destabilise the swan with dirty tricks were declined. Experiments with high and low frequency sound proved ineffective.
The swan mostly slept, or preened itself.
When everyone in Scotland was equipped with a decoy duck whistle and asked to blow it at a specific time, the swan cocked its head, but quickly lost interest.
Meanwhile, the black swan entered the mythology of Scotland. In films and songs and books it was portrayed as a luck charm, a saviour, a mascot.
The black swan became the official symbol of Scotland and appeared on the nation's flag. Everybody loved the black swan.
Then disaster struck. At 6:16 am on June 2, 2036, the swan suddenly departed.
Steadying itself with flapping wings, the black swan stood upright, craned its neck, stretched slightly, then—with a single cry—threw itself into the air, lifting off slowly, gradually gaining heigh, and disappearing into the sky. Soon it was lost in the blackness of space.
The sudden searing light was unbearable to Scots long accustomed to the comfort of darkness. Even though it was summer, Scotland felt icy cold. And the reassuring smell of the swan's soft black down had gone.
Scotland was in uproar, crestfallen.
At the Scottish parliament, the swan flag flew at half-mast, tugged by an unfamiliar wind. Only Ayrshire seemed happy.
Scots demanded the return of the swan or, failing that, suggested that a huge canopy of swan feathers be fitted over the nation like a trellis.
But the national budget wasn't enough, and with the imminent collapse of the swan tourism industry, things would only get worse.
Scotland entered a fifteen-year depression. Alcoholism grew rife as Scots struggled to cope with their loss. The national economy—not to mention the national ego—reached its lowest ebb.
And then the swan returned. Not to Scotland, but to New Zealand.
The black swan covered both the North and South islands. Its arrival was mostly welcomed by the locals.
In view of the Scottish experience, it was quickly decided that the swan should be physically secured. Its claws and beak were attached by reinforced cables to concrete blocks sunk deep into the soil and anchored, below, to the bedrock.
The plan seemed to work. The swan stayed put.
Many nostalgic Scots emigrated to New Zealand to be reunited with their beloved bird. The tourist industry boomed and New Zealand flourished.
Unfortunately, the captive black swan died, and its enormous corpse began to rot. The smell was awful. It lingered over New Zealand for months.
As far away as Tonga and Samoa, people are still wearing facemasks.
Forthcoming next month is The Book of Japans, which, like The Book of Scotlands, is part of the Solutions series published by Sternberg Press.
The other books in the series include: Solution 9: The Great Pyramid by Ingo Niermann and Jens Thiel (Eds.); Solution 1-10: Umbauland by Ingo Niermann; Solution 186–195: Dubai Democracy by Ingo Niermann; Solution 168–185: America by Tirdad Zolghadr; and Solution 196–213: United States of Palestine-Israel by Joshua Simon (Ed.), May 2011.
No doubt you're already aware of the Animal Architecture Awards, and probably hard at work on your submission. But just in case, here's part of the brief:
Animal Architecture seeks exciting projects that engage the lives, minds and behaviors of our alternate, sometimes familiar companion species — insects, birds, mammals, fish and microorganisms — each one with unique ways of world-making. As our society re-examines its place in the global ecology Animal Architecture invites your critical and unpublished essays and projects to address how architecture can mediate and encourage multiple new ways of species learning and benefiting from each other — or as we say it here: to illustrate cospecies coshaping.
The deadline to register is 15 May 2011. Check the project's website for more information.
Meanwhile, here are the posts we've tagged with #faunaphilia since the last retrospective. Hopefully they'll provide some inspiration.
31) Fish Ladder: a new hydrological continuum for fish to bypass brackish rivers and reach their spawning grounds.
To be continued...
A Crater for Eavesdropping on Exoplanetary Auroras
According to the Royal Astronomical Society, “scientists at the University of Leicester have shown that emissions from the radio aurora of planets like Jupiter should be detectable by radio telescopes such as LOFAR, which will be completed later this year.”
At first we thought it would be cool to plug a modified radio into their database and then all night long listen in to the sonic broadcast of exoplanetary auroras. Just a fizzy shower of static from some lonely, out-of-state AM radio station, your roommates will think. But no, it's actually the gravitational whirligigs of exoplanets, exomoons, magnetic fields and ionized gases. Ambient drones for when you're writing or coding.
But you know what? Screw the radio!
What we actually want are subterranean listening chambers. Arecibo crossed with Roden Crater crossed with the Super-Kamiokande. Deep underground, these antechambers vibrate extraterrestrial landscapes — crackling and warbling, hissing and bleeping, UFOing and theremining, or however the translation matrix is rendering the data.
But could the sonic fog actually be hiding more than one aurora-crowned Hot Jupiter? To find out, the task of mining the noise dump will be crowdsourced to audiophiles with super sensitive hearing. Distributed radio astronomy in dormant calderas. Acoustically quarantined each in their own symphony hall for one, these citizen scientists will monitor for the tell-tale chordfront in the electromagnetic storm. Jodie Foster spelunking with Jules Verne in James Turrell's caverns, planet hunting by podcast.
Paige Johnson works as a nanotechnology researcher at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma. When not inventing new ways to fabricate nanobatteries and other advanced materials, she moonlights as an independent scholar of garden history. She has published articles on the “outlandish” garden hydroengineering of Isaac de Caus and the technological motifs of Art Deco landscapes, among other topics. Additionally, she maintains two landscape-themed blogs, Garden History Girl and Playscapes, both of which have given us some great material to blog here in the past.
Her current landscape research is focused on the strange and fascinating story of atomic gardening, a post-war phenomenon in which plants were irradiated in the hopes of producing beneficial mutations. Considering recent nuclear events in Japan and the ever ongoing concern for food security, it's a topic that's sure to resonate.
As a cap (albeit a delayed one) to our Atomic Week earlier this month, we asked Johnson to share some of her research.
Pruned: So basically what are atomic gardens?
Paige Johnson: After WWII, there was a concerted effort to find 'peaceful' uses for atomic energy. One of the ideas was to bombard plants with radiation and produce lots of mutations, some of which, it was hoped, would lead to plants that bore more heavily or were disease or cold-resistant or just had unusual colors. The experiments were mostly conducted in giant gamma gardens on the grounds of national laboratories in the US but also in Europe and countries of the former USSR.
These efforts utimately reached far into the world outside the laboratory grounds in several ways: in plant varieties based on mutated stocks that were—and still are—grown commercially, in irradiated seeds that were sold to the public by atomic entrepreneur C.J. Speas during the 50s and 60s and through the Atomic Gardening Society, started in England by Muriel Howorth to promote the mutated varieties.
It's easy to look back at it all as some crazy, or conspiratorial, plot. But the atomic gardens weren't a secret. They've just been forgotten. And it's clear from reading the primary sources that most people involved were deeply sincere. They really thought their efforts would eradicate hunger, end famine, prevent another war.
Pruned: What made you interested in unearthing the story of these gardens, which, judging from their lack of a Wikipedia article, are indeed largely forgotten? What is the compelling angle?
Johnson: I was asked to speak at a conference about landscapes of the 1950s. I had previously done work about the appearance of technological motifs in the Art Deco landscapes of the 1920s and 1930s and anticipated doing something similar for the 1950s lecture. So I started by searching for atomic references in mid-century landscape forms, but soon came across this much deeper atomic element. I was immediately fascinated, and frankly really surprised that the history had never been examined. If we think of modern GM as taking a scalpel to the genome, mutation breeding by irradiation was a hammer. Amidst all the debate over altered crops, surely evaluating the legacy of the atomic gardens could be useful.
I'm in no way starting from the premise that all modern ills are somehow a result of these mid-century experiments. Maybe they didn't have any lasting effects at all; I don't know yet, and the goal of the research is to find that out! But I do know that this information should be readily available so that the public can access it and make up their own minds, and so that future researchers, beyond me, can engage with the primary source materials.
I think one way that science has failed the public is by not making its results accessible, often with the implicit—even explicit—excuse that non-scientists somehow aren't smart enough to understand them, which is self-serving tosh. It's interesting that public engagement was desired, and sought out, during the Atoms for Peace program of which the atomic gardens were a part. It was a time when the atomic scientists who had been sequestered during the war began to speak strongly into the public sphere about their science and its implications, to enter the cultural discussion in the way that these atomic experiments—which are still ongoing—should now.
Plus, the atomic gardens are an amazing human story—with Muriel carrying around atomic potatoes in her hand bag and C.J. irradiating seeds for science students—who wouldn't want to hear about that? Muriel and C.J. were exemplars of a nuclear enthusiasm that hasn't been nearly so examined historically as has nuclear protest. It's fun to look back and laugh, to shake our head with hindsight, but the less comfortable part of it is to examine our own enthusiasms, to ask what their unanticipated consequences might be.
I'm a bit of a contrarian thinker. So I tend to not worry so much about issues that are being debated—like, say, oil, or even GM crops—as about the debates we aren't having. I was startled that the strongest contemporary similarity to the language surrounding the atomic gardens is the grandiose predictions that are often attached to the latest 'green' technologies. Going into a future that is more influenced by science and technology every day, we have to be absolutely steely-eyed in our evaluation of what someone says will change the world for the better. Even if we want it to.
Pruned: Muriel Howorth is a major character in this story. Can you elaborate her role in this post-war phenomenon?
Johnson: Muriel is one of my favorite parts of the story and my upcoming article for the British Journal for the History of Science is all about her nuclear enthusiasm. I was able to locate her remaining family, they're lovely, and they still have a trunk of her things which they made available for my research, and her own personal geiger counter!
The atomic peanut dinner party sparked Muriel's involvement with atomic gardening, but it was in some ways a culmination of ten years of work during which she had acted as a tireless booster for all things nuclear: forming two societies to promote atomic science to the layman, publishing books and a journal with the same aim, writing the biography of a Nobel prize-winner, and even staging a “Radioactivity Jubilee” and an isotopic pantomime in which she and a dozen 'Atomic Energy Associates' danced out atomic forces.
Muriel was also the only person at the time speaking specifically to women about the new science, and encouraging them to take an active role; she had a Ladies Atomic Energy Club whose aim was expressly to bring women out of the kitchen and into the atomic age.
By her own account, Muriel originally hadn't thought beyond serving the NC4X peanuts to her guests at the dinner party. It was only afterwards, seemingly disappointed with their reaction, and wondering what to do with the leftovers, that she thought of popping some in the soil to see how they grew.
The Atomic Gardening Society was really the final chapter in what was an unusual career of atomic and self promotion. Muriel is interesting just for herself, of course, but also as an example of atomic optimism which has gone largely unexamined by historians.
It's common, now, to hear about the 'others' of history. Muriel was a woman, and a non-scientist, but her greater otherness was that she was an incredibly enthusiastic player for the losing team—the side of the nuclear discussion that was eventually discredited. We never talk about the losing team. But as a historian I'm interested in what we can learn from these kind of 'others'.
Pruned: You have an aerial picture of one of those giant gamma gardens. First of all, what accounts for its circular layout? Can you describe some of the quarantine protocols the researchers used? At first I thought it’s surrounded by hedgerows and beyond are farmlands. But I guess it’s surrounded by woodlands.
Johnson: The circular spatial form of the gamma gardens, which in aerial view uncannily resembles the radiation danger symbol, was simply based upon the need to arrange the plants in concentric circles around the radiation source which stood like a totem in the center of the field. It was basically a slug of radioactive material within a pole; when workers needed to enter the field it was lowered below ground into a lead lined chamber. There were a series of fences and alarms to keep people from entering the field when the source was above ground.
The amount of radiation received by the plants naturally varied according to how close they were to the pole. So usually a single variety would be arranged as a 'wedge' leading away from the pole, so that the effects of a range of radiation levels could be evaluated. Most of the plants close to the pole simply died. A little further away, they would be so genetically altered that they were riddled with tumors and other growth abnormalities. It was generally the rows where the plants 'looked' normal, but still had genetic alterations, that were of the most interest, that were 'just right' as far as mutation breeding was concerned!
So far, I haven't been able to find much more about the wider landscape settings of the gamma gardens; they are still within the grounds of national laboratories, both in the U.S. and abroad.
Pruned: Outside of these laboratory grounds, where did the mini atomic gardens pop up? If the public wanted to start their own, would C.J. and the Atomic Gardening Society have been their only commercial source of the irradiated seeds? As a matter of fact, how would they have known about them in the first place? You mention that they weren't exactly a secret.
Johnson: There is much less documentation of atomic gardening outside the laboratory. C.J. was the only way for the public to buy irradiated seeds. I can trace the marketing of the seeds—at garden fairs, and in the back of magazines, in grocery stores, and through high school science clubs, which sold them as fundraisers. But I don't yet know who bought them, or how many, or where.
I also don't know how many people participated, but it was enough of a cultural moment to form the plot device for Paul Zindel's Pulitzer prize-winning play The Effect of Gamma-Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds in 1964. The main character, the child Tillie, grows irradiated seeds as her science fair project and makes a speech about her project which ends: "Some of the mutations will be good ones—wonderful things beyond our dreams—and I believe, I believe this with all my heart, THE DAY WILL COME WHEN MANKIND WILL THANK GOD FOR THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL ENERGY FROM THE ATOM."
Paul Zindel was a science teacher. The play is still widely performed, but most people don't know that the irradiated marigolds were real.
Pruned: I'm curious as to how C.J. irradiated the seeds. What kind of equipment are we talking about?
Johnson: C.J. obtained a license from the Atomic Energy Commission for a Cobalt-60 source, probably similar to those still used in radiotherapy. He encased it in a small cinderblock chamber, into which he slid trays of seeds. He often showed his backyard “bunker” to tourists and school groups. That's about all I know so far.
I had high hopes of traipsing through Tennessee to find the bunker, but the site was incorporated into flood plain as part of a river project, and near as I can tell no longer exists. No documents have turned up on what happened to the source.
Pruned: What were some of the mutations these gardens produced?
Johnson: While the scientific experiments are documented pretty well in the journal literature we actually don't know what mutations came from the home experiments. The Atomic Gardening Society had the lofty goal of furthering scientific research. It was really an early crowd-sourcing, citizen-scientist movement. Very ahead of its time!
But obviously there are issues around properly controlling experiments in people's backyards, and there was no avenue to 'publish' results. A really interesting part of this investigation is what unknown progeny might be out there.
Pruned: So really there might be an atomic heirloom tomato that's now growing on somebody's allotment garden. They're thinking that it's strangely misshapen and uniquely pigmented because it's an heirloom, but in fact it's a gamma-mutated variety. It's a kind of amnesia, one that's actually fairly common when it comes to the foods that we eat. Pick any vegetable or meat at Wal-Mart or the local farmer's market, and more likely than not, there's a long history there of genetic manipulation that's largely forgotten.
Johnson: The atomic plant varieties certainly fit it with your 'food amnesia' premise; it would be rare for the consumer to know anything about the genetic history of the food we consume, much less if it came out of the mid-century atomic experiments. But the path from an irradiated seed, or a gamma garden, to the table can be anything but straight. Let's look at some examples that have made it to the American table, and tummy.
Mint oil from the peppermint plant, Mentha piperita L., is ubiquitous in things like chewing gum and toothpaste. Peppermint is one of many plants susceptible to Verticillium wilt, a fungal disease that cause stunting and plant death. Hundreds of thousands of stolons were irradiated at the Brookhaven National Laboratory from about 1955 on, and planted into wilt infested fields, ultimately resulting in the release of the wilt-resistant 'Todd's Mitcham' cultivar, a product of thermal neutron irradiation, in 1971. The exact nature of the genetic changes that cause it to be wilt-resistant remain unknown. Most of the global production of mint oil is now the Todd's Mitcham' cultivar, with an estimated market value of around $930 million USD.
Another readily available atomic mutant is the 'Rio Star' grapefruit, which accounts for 75% of the grapefruit production in Texas. They were bred solely to produce flesh and juice that is more red in color than previous varieties.
That's a pretty direct route; the genetic change produced by irradiation remains in the commercially cultivated variety, as my research shows so far. So yes, it is possible that someone, planting atomic seeds in their allotment, produced a plant with a genetic mutation that was robust enough to still possess the mutated 'feature' today.
Pruned: Lastly, you are a nanotechnology researcher by day and moonlight as an independent scholar of garden history. What brought about this fascinating career combination? Also, I'm curious how one career might be informing the other and vice versa.
Johnson: I think I just have a hungry mind.
There is no obvious intersection between nanotech and my garden history, and it started out as something of an indulgence; a break from science to pursue formally a subject in which I had an avocational interest. I even told my garden history tutor that I didn't want to write about scientific/garden overlaps, that I was tired of things technical and needed a break. But as soon as I read about the mystery of the rainbow fountain I was hooked.
How my garden history informs my continuing work in science is a bit more complicated; it is more influenced by my general interest in design of space, of which garden history is a part. At a very fundamental level, many nanotechnology problems are about the creation of appropriate spaces. There are load of papers published on new whiz-bang nanostructures, which one might think of as objects or sculptures. They're pretty and all, but what we need is negative-space structures, spaces that are architectures not sculptures, spaces that can be 'inhabited', and comparatively few people are working on that. These are things my study of design helped me understand, which has led to a patent for a hollow nanostructure, and another application for one that inhabits the hollow space.
If you are in London on 7 June 2011, Paige Johnson will be at the Garden Museum giving a talk on atomic gardening, Muriel Howorth and the Atomic Gardening Society. Her article on in British Journal for the History of Science is forthcoming this summer.
Johnson is also planning to write a book on the subject; check back on her blog and here in the coming weeks for details.
72 Hour Urban Action in Melbourne
The 72 Hour Urban Action — a rapid, real-time architecture competition first organized last year in Bat-Yam, Israel — is coming to Melbourne on 25-30 July 2011. And applications are now being accepted!
This event is being organized by the Melbourne-based design office OUTR (Office of Urban Transformations).
100 international/national architects, designers, craftspeople and artists will race the clock to design and construct exciting new public space projects in just 72 hours in a real-time design challenge aimed at transforming Melbourne’s Docklands.
There's a two-tiered registration deadline. For the early bird, send your application by 2 May 2011. Everyone else has until 31 May 2011 to file theirs.
First prize is worth $20,000.00AUD.
Meanwhile, original event co-organizer Kerem Halbrecht is on a lecture tour of the United States this month presenting his organization's innovative platform for rapid urban change. He'll be speaking tonight at the Rebar Group in San Francisco, and tomorrow at Materials & Applications in Los Angeles.
Also, if you're still interested in which direction we think this event should go in the future, check out our idea for 72 Hour Urban Action in Venice. But you could just substitute Venice with any city with an architecture biennale (or without).
Upon learning of the shortage of slaughterhouses due to proliferation of small, independent farms catering to locavores, Theo Jansen has transformed his unburdened beasts into nomadic abattoirs. Before only the salty air of the coast breezed through their skeletal frames, now pasture-raised livestock pass through its pneumatic innards, ensanguining and disemboweling them with precision. They can even milk cows.
Once the job is done, they set off to another homestead. They move through the landscapes with the same plodding calmness of a herd of elephant. Gentle creatures but with a violent and bloody vocation. If there's no appointment, they simply go out to pasture, grazing side by side with the comestibles. On weekends, they are corralled to the local farmer's market.
Saturday, April 16, 2011
1) Spiegel surveys the world's radioactive no-go zones.
2) Nicola Twilley goes on a tour of Los Angeles with the Center for Land Use Interpretation.
3) With Geoff Manaugh, Nicola Twilley also went on a safari through fruit-tree-filled backyards, concrete rivers and steep-sided canyons, along the way mapping butterfly waystations, big cat crossings, and feral peacock preening locations.
4) In Be Your Own Souvenir, you take a pose and a 3D printer will spit out a tiny model of you in that pose.
5) Philip Connor's Fire Season is an account of the author's nearly half decade work as a fire lookout in the Gila National Forest. Paris Review has an interview with Connor, and at the interviewer's blog are some extra Q&As.
For this ad of the 2009 Honda Civic, a stretch of highway has been engraved with a specially sequenced sets of rumble strips. When a car drives through, the wheels and car body vibrate a distinctive musical tune. In this case, it's the William Tell Overture that soundtracks the passing landscape.
It goes without saying that longer pieces are needed. Imagine driving through the unrelenting vastness of the American West, and all of a sudden, your car begins to shudder an entire Aaron Copland score. This will surely gladden your heart and fluff up your patriotic spirit. Or equally likely, trigger a prolonged bout of road rage, in which case more than 30 seconds worth of jingle is probably not such a good idea.
The Largest Urban Solar Power Plant in the United States
Apparently, it's in Chicago. Called Exelon City Solar, it was completed last year, generates 14,000 megawatt-hours of electricity per year, and powers up to 1,500 homes. More interestingly for us, it sits atop a 41-acre brownfield.
The Dirt sees it as part of an emerging trend. Instead of paying for a costly clean up of their heavily polluted sites, cities invest the money into solar farms.
Might this escalate to the point that we see the Fukushima Exclusion Zone turned into the largest wind farm in the world? Sure the place is radioactive but at least there are no militant NIMBYs living there to protest against it. The worse the disaster gets, the larger the contamination site — which ironically translates to more clean energy.
Natural Car Alarms
A comment left on our post on Australia's lyrebirds pointed us to the work of Nina Katchadourian, specifically Natural Car Alarms, a piece which was installed in 2002 at several locations around New York.
For the exhibit, the Brooklyn-based artist hacked the alarms of three cars to emit not the natural soundtrack of the city but the sonic pattern of real birds. This urban automotive flock, in other words, was “re-edited” into counter-lyrebirds.
Katchadourian writes: “Almost as important as matching the sounds was finding a patterning that mimicked the swooping cries and punctuated honks of the familiar six-tone siren. They also needed to be as loud, intrusive, obnoxious and surprising as the real thing. Ideally, I wanted to replicate some of the ambiguity I had experienced in the forest, where the urban and the natural were suddenly very continuous. Car alarms were after all a completely natural part of the Long Island City landscape where the piece would be shown.”
It's worth pointing out that one of the mimicked birds is actually a Superb Lyrebird. This copying of a copier could have set out the marvelous scenario, in which a lyrebird, upon hearing its own song converted into a car alarm, proceeded to mimic its reprocessed mating call. And then Katchadourian comes along again intent on making another remix.
One of those ubiquitous David Attenborough nature documentaries, called The Life of Birds, was playing in the background the other day. We weren't paying attention much until Attenborough focused his hushed voice on the Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae). The name comes from its lyre-shaped plumage but surely it also refers to the male lyrebird's extraordinary ability to mimic almost any sound.
In the video embedded below, you can hear the bird mashups its own songs with that of other birds, such as the kookabura, and with man-made sounds — a camera shutter, another camera with a motor drive, a car alarm and chainsaws — all with amazing fidelity.
In other YouTube videos, you see the birds not on the floor of a real forest but enclosed in imitation surroundings at the zoo. You can also hear an expanded selection in their repertoire, which includes a jack hammer, a truck and a two-way radio. Dipping into the uncanny valley, that radio unnervingly comes with a replay of an analogue human voice.
Though these copied sounds came from a building site inside the zoo, it is nevertheless interesting to imagine that a similar soundtrack might have been playing in their home forests before being rescued and brought to their present cages. What visitors are listening to, then, are the narratives of their displacement, from their own voices. Their birdsongs are a kind a strange audio tour through environmental degradation and ecological extinction, something more direct and visceral than an exhibit label that most only glance at.
We are reminded here of Abraham, a pet of David Gissen's neighbors. Abraham is an African Grey Parrot, and it “squawks and squeeks” the sounds of their neighborhood: alarms on microwave ovens, screeching brakes of busses, the clanging of dishes, pots and pots. “In short, Abraham is a type of architectural and urban, living archive.”
Gissen later learns that African Grey Parrots “engage in a migratory pattern in Africa that extends from Liberia into the Sudan. In other words, Abraham’s species-kin move through some of the most troubling areas of the African continent in the very expression of their lives.”
From this, Gissen proposes what must be one of our absolute favorite speculative projects, the Socio-natural Archive.
[I]magine the naturalist, the geographer and the urban historian collectively capturing some of these birds, with the violence they have recorded, and bringing them into our urban zoos. One might imagine recoding the zoo, an archive that appears as a space of entertainment, as the representation of trans-continental war and conflict that it really is — those animals come from somewhere (usually an “elsewhere”). If we can imagine bringing Abraham’s brothers and sisters into a space where we might reflect on their song of urban and social destruction, we will hear things that will shock us, frighten us and make us consider the particular power and moving nature of archives that are part of life itself. When we consider the way non-human life is used as an archive, we realize that the social, the natural and the historical cannot be so easily divided.
It's hard to resist imagining future historians getting frustrated that the only first-hand accounts of our present wars are irretrievable from ancient data storage devices. So they turn amateur ornithologists, netting birds whose ancestors might have eavesdropped on the long ago conflict and then passed on their precious recordings to their offsprings, who then passed it on to the next generation, and so on. The signal after centuries of analogue downloading and uploading might be garbled, but perhaps there's enough there to reconstruct something, anything, a song being broadcast from deep time.
Saturday, April 09, 2011
1) “Upper Toronto is a science fiction design proposal to build a new city in the sky. The CN restaurant might be ground level, or imagine a city sitting on top of the Bay Street towers. When Upper Toronto is finished, all residents of will be relocated upwards and Lower Toronto will transformed into some combination of intentional ruin, national park, and farmland.”
2) Mammoth went on a scopic drive tracing the trucking corridors, pipelines and terminal endpoints of Alberta's oil sands.
3) Free Association Design also went on a scopic drive, this time in search of marsh-stabilizing geometries along the coast of Louisiana.
4) The Office Experiments has mapped out the nodal points of southern England's vast techno-scientific and military-industrial complex.
5) There was an International Conference on Global Land Grabbing. Land grabbing refers to the global rush in recent years to buy or lease farmlands abroad as a strategy to secure basic food supplies or simply for profit. The buyers, usually large multi-national agribusiness concerns, have been criticized for gobbling up prime arable lands in countries with food security problems of their own and with weak governance to control environmental and labor abuses.
The Shimizu Corporation has already envisioned the Great Man-Made River post-conflict as Dubai-style hydrological flamboyance. Transnational canals crisscross the post-liberation terrain of the Maghreb, delivering not fossil water, which is non-renewable, but seawater to Gaddafi's reservoirs mutated into Herman Sörgel's utopian lakes, on the shores of which are desalination plants powered by Desertec's Apollonian fields. Orbiting these islanded oases like planetesimals, just beyond Magnus Larsson's circumnavigating erg-cathedrals, are crop circles growing saltwater tolerant, drought resistant GM vegetables.
Dreams grafted on dreams grafted on dreams grafted on dreams grafted on dreams.
The Great Reservoirs of Libya
Here are the five reservoirs of Libya's Great Man-Made River, Muammar Gaddafi's megaproject bringing “fossil water” drawn from aquifers in the desert south to the coastal cities. These are the terminal points of the project's Phase I water pipeline, running roughly through the middle of the country for some 1,200km. Additional pipelines run through the eastern and western parts.
Also check out BLDGBLOG's dispatch from this segment of the Super-Versailles — half a decade ago!
(Im)possible Chicago #9
The United Great Lakes is a hydrostate encompassing the entire drainage basin of the Great Lakes plus a chunk of the St. Lawrence River Basin. These territories ceded from Canadian provinces and American states are organized into administrative cantons coterminus with the sub-basins of each individual lake. The capital city is Chicago.
The choice of Chicago as the capital was controversial at first, because it had for decades allowed the Illinois and Michigan Canal to wastefully drain water out of the lakes. No one objected once the flow of water was re-reversed, especially since everyone realized it was strategically positioned near the parched city-states of Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, their main hydro-export markets.
Indeed, Great Lakes freshwater is their main commodity. It is also their only major industry. Gone are the Boeings, the GMs and the Dow Chemicals: they've all either moved to the low-tax pastures of Texas or gone bankrupt. But with unquenchable demand of the petrostate of New Alberta and more distant markets like China, linked via the Mississippi River turned international waterway, the economic impact of their desertion and erasure was minimally negative.
Below the city and following its grid system are the cavernous reservoirs of thousands of Mega-Notre-Dames, buttressed with buttressed buttresses, columned and aisled with service passages and emergency tunnels. Jutting out from each one and puncturing the surface are Neo-Gothic spires housing pumping stations, pressure release valves and permanent crew quarters, with the grander ones additionally housing the federal government of the water cartel. Some are quite tall, even reaching the height of the once standing Sears Towers. Not for anything is Chicago now nicknamed The City of Spires.
Illinois Tollway Oases
Tuesday, April 05, 2011
We previously suggested having a picnic in Jackson Park and/or Red Gate Woods while on your Atomic Tour of Chicago's Nuclear Edgelands, but if Jackson Park isn't fringe enough for you and if eating close to a nuclear dumpsite sounds too unappetizing, how about stopping at one of the Illinois Tollway Oases on the city's ring roads?
These oases are roadway rest areas whose defining feature is a glass bridge built over the highway they service. Inside are the usual coterie of fast food restaurants, such as McDonald's, Subway and Panda Express. There are seven listed by Illinois Tollway, although the DeKalb Oasis does not have an over-the-road food court. But you can ignore it, because it's way out in the western hinterlands.
If this website is to be believed, these oases are apparently vernacular to the Chicagoland area. They are found nowhere else — except, of course, for the Glass House in Vinita, Oklahama, and a couple of examples in England, which, if the same site is again to be believed, were “inspired by the Oases in Chicago.”
In reviewing David Lawrence's Food on the Move: The Extraordinary World of the Motorway Service Area, Will Wiles briefly describes one of these English oases, writing: “At Charnock Richard on the M6, Charles Forte — the missing link in British fast food between milk bars and McDonald's — built an Italian-style futurist glass bridge over the motorway containing a high-class grill restaurant where diners could watch the traffic passing underneath, a kind of automotive dinner-theatre.”
If you're looking for a peculiar venue for a public viewing of David Cronenberg's Crash, try a tollway oasis. Then again, if there's an actual crash screened through the glass, the whole thing will come off as some sort of grotesque affectation.
For easy trip planning, we've mapped all these oases (green picnic placemarks; regular green for DeKalb Oasis) in relation to Site A/Plot M (the southern nuclear placemark). Next door with the atomic placemark is Argonne National Laboratory, the direct successor of Site A and (can we say this?) descendant of the Chicago arm of the Manhattan Project. The northern nuclear placemark is Zion Nuclear Power Station, retired in 1998 but scheduled for decontamination and dismantlement in a year or two.
Perhaps it's interesting to note that parts of Chain Reaction was filmed at Argonne. That movie, starring Keanu Reeves, is perhaps the only cinematic treatment of bubble fusion, a hypothesized form of nuclear fusion using sonoluminescence.
Keanu aside and not forgetting that Fermilab is nearby, one wonders what other cutting edge nuclear physics are being done along the fringe.
Site A / Plot M
A tour of Chicago's nuclear fringe definitely wouldn't be complete without a stop at the Palos Forest Preserves located just outside the city to the southwest. Inside and accessible only via hiking trails are the 19-acre area known as Site A and the 150x140-foot area known as Plot M, respectively the site of the world's first nuclear reactors and radioactive waste dumping ground.
Of course, the first nuclear reactor (Chicago Pile-1, or CP-1) was located on the campus of the University of Chicago. But just a few months after its first nuclear chain reaction in December 1942, CP-1 was dismantled and reconstructed on Site A. It was then renamed CP-2.
A second reactor, known as Chicago Pile-3 (CP-3), was also built. In 1950, this reactor was renamed CP-3' (CP-3 prime) when it was rebuilt with a new design. Also built on Site A were about 35 buildings housing laboratories, dormitories, a cafeteria, dog kennels and a lead foundry.
According to the Department of Energy, all research programs at these facilities ended in 1954 and moved 3 miles to the east to a new complex, the Argonne National Laboratory. While the fuel for both reactors and heavy water were taken somewhere else, all buildings on Site A were torn down and, along with most of the equipment, buried where they stood.
An excavation approximately 100 feet across and 40 feet deep was prepared between the two reactors. The reactors themselves were approximately 180 feet apart. The 800-ton, concrete-filled, shell of the CP-3 reactor was buried by excavating around it on three sides and detonating strategically placed explosives in the earthen “pedestal” supporting it. The reactor shell rolled and ended upside down in the excavation. The concrete shield of CP-2 was demolished and pushed into the same excavation. The buildings that housed the reactors were demolished and placed in the excavation. The excavation was then backfilled, leveled, and landscaped. The top of the CP-3 reactor shield is approximately 23 feet below ground surface; rubble and building debris fill the excavation both laterally and vertically to within a few feet of the surface.
Placed at the approximate location of the burial site is a large engraved (head)stone describing the historical significance of Site A.
Located 1,500 feet north of Site A is Plot M. There, radioactive waste and radioactively contaminated laboratory articles generated from research activities at Site A were buried.
The method of disposal sounds rather crude in comparison to today's vast subterranean nuclear sarcophagi but nevertheless underscores the ongoing uncertainties over the safety of more modern burial strategies — or any of them, in fact.
Apparently both solid and liquid waste was buried from 1944 through 1946. Liquid wastes were disposed in intact containers, which may have subsequently been breached. Through 1948, waste was buried in 6-foot deep trenches and covered with soil to minimize radiation release; beginning in May 1948 burial took place in steel bins. The steel bins were removed in 1949 in a search for some missing uranium-235, which was subsequently found. Instead of reburying the bins, they were shipped off site for disposal; the waste buried in trenches was allowed to remain in place. Records of items placed in Plot M are incomplete, but known items include animal carcasses, building debris, clothing, contaminated equipment, air filters, paper, and other radioactive and hazardous materials.
Dumping at Plot M stopped in 1949, and for a few years was covered with soil and grass, which weren't much protection against water infiltration and seepage. Then in 1956:
[A]n inverted concrete box was constructed over the entire burial plot. The concrete walls of the box are 18 inches thick and extend 8 feet into the ground. A 1-foot-thick concrete slab was poured over the entire disposal area. The purpose of the concrete barrier is to prevent excavation of the site and to impede the flow of water through the buried radioactive materials. The concrete slab was covered with about 2 feet of soil [and] grass was planted.
Interestingly, the DOE does not mention how and where contaminated material were buried during the years when Plot M had already been decommissioned but Site A was still in operation.
Just as at Site A, there's a small stone monument briefly describing past top secret activities. Situated as it is atop a gently sloping mound entombing radioactive waste (a malformed Mt. Parnasus, if you will) and surrounded by pastoral landscaping, one half expects finding an additional inscription, which reads: Et in Arcadia ego.
It's interesting to see that where the marker assures visitors that the area poses no danger to them, the word “NO” has been chiseled out by vandals. Perhaps it's a hint that all warning signs are bound to fail, not just the signal they carry but the physical sign itself. No matter how many far-forward scenarios have been taken into count and design for in countless ideas competitions (not to mention those ideas competitions for ideas competitions), potentially dangerous landscapes, even lethal ones, will always be attractive destinations.
The tourists will come in their CLUI buses regardless of the danger. And the “atomic priesthood” will have its schisms and periods of iconoclasm, when delirious, chisel-happy monks will rebel against the text and rampage through their irradiated basilicas.
But in the meantime, you can have a picnic near Plot M.
Sunday in the Park with Chicago's Cold War Missile Defense Shield
During the height of the Cold War, anti-aircraft missile batteries surrounded many of the major population centers in the United States. Built under the Project Nike program, these rings of military bases formed defense shields against a nuclear attack from Soviet long-range bombers. At the beginning of the program, they carried missiles with conventional warheads, but in later years, they were equipped with missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads with yields ranging from 2 to 30 kilotons.
While detonating a nuclear bomb so close to a city like Los Angeles and New York might sound like it would defeat the purpose of protecting them from such a blast, bear in mind that these Nike batteries were literally the last line of defense. Getting just a singe also seems to be a more preferable outcome than total nuclear annihilation. But exactly how many missiles were fitted with a nuclear warhead and at which sites seem to be a matter of state secret.
Chicago had a total of 23 batteries — the most among the Nike program cities. Each one was typically divided into two separate parcels of land. At the Launch Area, the missiles were stored in underground bunkers and brought up to the surface using an elevator and a rail system. Located a short distance away, the Battery Control Area contained the radar and computer equipment.
Since each site was typically manned by a large crew of at least 100 personnel, there were recreational facilities, crew quarters and other support facilities attached to either the launch or control area. Otherwise they would have been located at a separate third area.
As can be seen from the map above, most of the sites were built on the urban fringes of the city and away from densely populated areas. A couple were even located in the boondocks of northern Indiana. But what's really interesting about these Chicago emplacements (and what really piqued our interest in the very first place) is that three of them were inserted into prime parkland area along the shores of Lake Michigan.
The launch area of Site C-03, for instance, was built on Belmont Harbor; its control area was on Montrose Harbor a little further to the north. Just a few yards away from its arsenal of nuclear-capable missiles were high-rise lakefront apartments. One wonders if residents in those buildings regularly spied on the missiles preening upwards on their launchers during test runs. Surely they must have been treated to the spectacle of a simulated nuclear armageddon.
Another battery, Site C-40, was built on the northern end of Burnham Park, near McCormick Place and Soldier Field. The third, Site C-41, was located in the similarly genteel surroundings of Jackson Park, the very same park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux and in an earlier era hosted Daniel Burnham's White City during the World's Columbian Exposition.
It's interesting to think that in the backyard of the Museum of Science of Industry, students from the nearby University of Chicago might have taken leisurely strolls among picturesque lagoons and arcadian meadows while soldiers, in their restricted enclosures, hurriedly scampered about during a readiness drill, the sounds of birds twittering and frolicking mashed up with alarms blaring. Closer to the lake, people threw frisbees around while radar towers looming above them tracked the skies for any incoming apocalypse.
All structures at the three lakefront sites have long been demolished and cleared away. Most of the other sites also have had their buildings razed and their underground bunkers filled in. Post-Nike conversions have varied through the years, and have included a police shooting range, a golf course, parking lots and industrial developments. A popular conversion seems to be turning them into “Nike Parks” or “Patriot's Parks”. There's not much left to see, in other words.
One of the better documented sites in its ruin state is C-84. Before a shopping mall was plopped down on top, the National Park Service sent some of its awesome HABS/HAER surveyors in 1992 to take some photographs. One imagines urban explorers lamenting at the loss of such a pleasure ground.
Fortunately for the dark tourists, ruin pornographers and CLUI junkies, there are still some residual traces worth your time. For instance, some concrete slabs and building foundations remain at the launcher area of Site C-44, located at Wolf Lake in the southeastern corner of the city.
To see a sizable collection of buildings and radar towers still intact, you'd have to go to Site C-47 in Indiana. The control area, now a Blast Camp paintball venue, still have some of its radar towers. All the buildings at the launcher area are still standing, though this parcel of the site is private property.
Add in a “Nike Park” and a “Patriot's Park” to the itinerary plus a stop at the C-84 shopping mall and even a picnic in Jackson Park, and you have the making of an interesting Sunday outing perambulating the city's edgelands. It'd be like re-tracing some spectral pilgrimage route encircling the city, perhaps in tangent to the same arcs and loops which decades ago some military inspector, while island hopping from one nuclear arsenal to another, had inscribed into the landscape with his irradiated body. And who knows, maybe you'll also be soaking in minute amounts of radiation at each way station, in which case your own infinitesimally irradiated body will be leaving a trail of energetic breadcrumbs.
It'll be an atomic tour of Chicago's Cold War missile defense shield.