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What is (non-)essential knowledge for (new) architecture?
306090 15

For the next 306090 book, guest editor David L. Hays wants to know, “What is essential knowledge for architecture?

This frequently posed question targets fundamental principles of design, those basic criteria and priorities through which disciplinary stability is ensured. Yet, insofar as relevance is a core value of architecture, in both theory and practice, the contingent nature of the future guarantees that some forms of knowledge not presently considered essential will eventually become indispensable.

306090 15 is thus calling for “contributions that envision possible futures for architecture through speculations about new disciplinary knowledge. What specific methods, materials, or understandings—tools, ratios, formulas, properties, principles, guidelines, definitions, rules, practices, techniques, reference points, histories, and more—not presently considered essential to architecture could, or should, define its future? Pertinent knowledge might be previously forgotten, currently undervalued, generally misunderstood, or not yet recognized. Architects have long looked both to the outmoded traditions of their discipline and to other fields altogether when imagining possible directions for their work. In blurring the boundary between essential and non-essential knowledge, this inquiry seeks not to codify the contemporary state of the art for architecture, nor to assert the value of multidisciplinarity, but to envision, and potentially catalyze, new disciplinary approaches.”

This edition, then, will not be about the state of the art; instead, it's about what the state of the art could be, should be, would be, if...

The deadline is 30 March 2012.
Where is Alloura Zion?

Gravity Base Stations
Gravity Base Stations

When I first stumbled upon these poorly scanned data sheets of so-called gravity base stations, I thought they were actual “stations,” that is, actual gravity sensing devices that are constantly taking measurements of local geodetic conditions. Compact machines like those humidity monitors you see in museums and galleries that are sometimes mistaken for art installations.

To protect them from the environment and public tampering, I imagined each device encased in a metal canister, permanently embedded in concrete or stone and topped with a benchmark disk, itself stamped with an identification number and a warning of a fine or imprisonment to anyone who disturbs them.

I also imagined them forming a pointillist sensor network, just another sedimentary layer of a much more totalizing enviro-veillance network superimposed on the surface of the earth. Deployed in the most unassuming corners of the built environment, they pique little interest outside the insular worlds of geologists and geocachers.

But I was giddy with the possibility that they might be like buoy stations set adrift by NOAA not in the open ocean but on “solid” ground. Instead of ocean waves, they surf on invisible gravitational swells and troughs. And instead of the hyperactivities of the weather, they monitor something beyond our lived experience and even beyond their operational lives: gravitational fluxes caused by the million- or billion-year-long gyrations of tectonic storms.

Then I read up more on them, and...

(Im)possible Chicago #31-40










Mythologizing the Dredge Boaters
Dredge Boaters

Once the cities established their beachheads, the dredge boaters and their mud-suckers entered the soft, defenseless womb-belly of the Great Dismal Swamp.

There was an Empire to be made.

Dredge Boaters

Some began on the margins, gnawing away at the neither solid nor liquid surface, leaving an alien grid of ditches and canals, by which the wetlands were sucked dry. Others were dropped in the middle of the marshy wilderness, carrying planks of timber, bushels of coal, and the iron marvels of nascent modernity, all assembled together at the gooey center before cutting their escape routes.

At the vanguard of each cadre was the giant, steel hardened, biting snout of the sludge-extractor, which swiveled left and right to regurgitate its cargo of excavated slime. It was both the mouth and the anus of the monstrous beast. At the back were rooms where the dredge boaters ate, slept and passed the time away. Indeed, these dredge boats were their homes for the weeks and months and sometimes years that it took to exsanguinate the wetlands. They were terrestrial-sailors plying the waves of an inland prairie-sea.

Dredge Boaters

Dredge Boaters

Once in a while, the dredge boaters passed through a pioneer township, a sort of Land Grant port of call. Like their seaborne counterparts, these landlocked mariners relieved themselves on booze, cabaret, gambling and prostitutes. One or two even left with a partner. Some of the newcomers became lived-in whores for the crews, while others actually married into the dredging life, in which case the dredge boat was turned into a floating cathedral for the wedding.

Dredge Boaters

The new couple was then given their own dredge boat, and there they raised a family, a new crew of dredge boaters. They birthed swamp babies on dead-straight lines of stagnant waters, sent them to floating schools staffed with traveling minstrel-teachers from the East, entertained them with stories of the Bog Monster, apprenticed them on the art of marsh-bloodletting, and indoctrinated them on empire-building.

And there, on that same dredge boat, that's where they also died, had their quivering as steam whistled lamentations in the front, before being scooped up by the bucket-ladder and buried on some stretch of dredged tumulus-levee, at peace with the knowledge that they did their heroic part in preparing the landscape for the heroic farmers, the heroic ranchers, the heroic rail builders, and the heroic megalopolis.

Gardens as Crypto-Water-Computers
Water Computer

I only recently found out about Google's reverse image search functionality. Since then I've been busy feeding its search engine some of the more mysterious images that have been littering my archives for years, hoping finally to figure out what they are actually pictures of, and why I even found them interesting enough to keep in the first place.

One of those images is the one you see above. According to a translation of this article published by the Russian magazine Science and Life in 2000, it shows one of the “monuments of science and technology” that “brought [the Soviet Union] to the forefront of the analog computer” — Vladimir Lukyanov's marvelous water computer.

Built in 1936, this machine was “the world's first computer for solving [partial] differential equations,” which “for half a century has been the only means of calculations of a wide range of problems in mathematical physics.” Absolutely its most amazing aspect is that solving such complex equations meant playing around with a series of interconnected, water-filled glass tubes. You “calculated” with plumbing.

To better explain how it works, here is a description by Steven Strogatz of what I'm assuming is a comparative device. Built in 1949, nearly a decade and a half after Lukyonov's, it's called the Phillips machine, after its inventor, Bill Phillips.

In the front right corner, in a structure that resembles a large cupboard with a transparent front, stands a Rube Goldberg collection of tubes, tanks, valves, pumps and sluices. You could think of it as a hydraulic computer. Water flows through a series of clear pipes, mimicking the way that money flows through the economy. It lets you see (literally) what would happen if you lower tax rates or increase the money supply or whatever; just open a valve here or pull a lever there and the machine sloshes away, showing in real time how the water levels rise and fall in various tanks representing the growth in personal savings, tax revenue, and so on.

“It’s a network of dynamic feedback loops,” Strogatz further writes. “In this sense the Phillips machine foreshadowed one of the most central challenges in science today: the quest to decipher and control the complex, interconnected systems that pervade our lives.”


To go back to Lukyanov, his water computer was built specifically to solve the problem of cracking in concrete, a “scourge” that slowed the construction of railroads by his employer. Doing so meant developing manufacturing regimes for concrete blocks that took into account the complex relationships between material properties, the curing process and environmental conditions. Existing “calculation methods were not able to give fast and accurate solutions.” Lukyanov's invention did.

Appropriating and altering Strogatz's text, we get:

Filling up not just a corner but the entire room, inside not one but several structures that resemble large cupboards with a transparent front, is a Rube Goldberg collection of tubes, tanks, valves, pumps and sluices. You could think of it as a hydraulic computer. Water flows through a series of clear pipes, mimicking the production line of concrete blocks. It lets you see (literally) what would happen if you change the type of cement used or increase the load capacity of the concrete or whatever; just open a valve here or pull a lever there and the machine sloshes away, showing in real time how the water levels rise and fall in various tanks representing material properties, curing time, temperature, and so on.

Changes to the water level in the “measuring tube” would be marked on a graph paper (“a kind of curve”), and “these marks build schedule, which was the solution of the problem.”

Because of the simplicity of their design and programming, subsequent models were “successfully used” in other fields such as geology, thermal physics, metallurgy and rocket engineering. The first and second generations of digital electronic computers could not match their computing abilities. In the mid-1970s, they were still being used in “115 manufacturing, research and educational institutions located in 40 cities” across the Soviet Union. “Only in the early 80s” were digital computers cheap, configurable and powerful enough to match the “possibility of [the] hydraulic integrator.”

Polytechnic Museum Moscow

Having briefly traced the history of water computers forward from Lukyanov to the rest of the 20th century, I can't help but thread the timeline backward to include some of the most elaborate hydraulic engineering schemes used in the sprawling aristocratic gardens of early modern Europe, such as the always indispensable Versailles, the hydro-acoustically drenched Tivoli, the masterworks of Salomon and Isaac de Caus, and one of my top favorite gardens, Pratolino.

Garden historians usually characterize the technical control of water in stately gardens as part of a system of social control. As an alternative, or at least to offer another layer of meaning, this augmented timeline presents a crypto-historical narrative of gardens as gigantic water computers.


All those water-screws, force pumps, water-lifting wheels, vents, wells and settling tanks, all those reservoirs, canals, aqueducts and pipes buried under mountains and rivers, and all those jets spurting out of vases and statuaries, creating water rainbows and sonic merriment, and all those fountains, water parterres, giochi d'acqua, automatas and damp grottos: those are the gurgling circuits, the programmable interfaces, the data storage devices and the visualization screens of landscape proto-supercomputers.

To operate it, you will have to consult an unpublished edition of Solomon de Caus's Les raisons des forces mouvantes, avec diverses machines tant utiles que plaisantes, auxquelles sont adjoints plusieurs dessings de grotes & fontaines, from which the following may have been excerpted:

Embedded in the earth is a Rube Goldberg collection of tubes, tanks, valves, pumps and sluices. You could think of it as a hydraulic computer. Water flows through a series of clear pipes, mimicking the way that money flows through the empire. It lets you see (literally) what would happen if you lower the price of bread or increase the construction of palaces or whatever; just open a valve here or pull a lever there and the machine in the garden sloshes away, showing in real time how the water levels rise and fall in various tanks representing colonial trade supplies, food riots, and so on.

Attached to the measuring tube is a series of fountains that gurgles the solution to the equation.

Jean-Baptiste Martin

Gardeners and their patrons would then walk around marking the fluctuating levels of these fountains on graphic paper. From fountain to fountain, they follow a set of programmed perambulations, gathering data at relevant nodal points, along the way not just picking up the solutions to the problem being computed but also gaining a greater understanding of the complexities of the natural and social worlds.

With these gardens as crypto-water-computers, they were taking measurements of the universe.

The Provisional, Improvisational, Guerrilla, Unsolicited, Tactical, Temporary, Informal, DIY, Unplanned, Participatory, Open-Source Pavilion

Here's your chance to have your work be included in the U.S. Pavilion at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale. The theme is “Spontaneous Interventions: design actions for the common good.”

This year's curators, from the New York-based Institute for Urban Design, are looking for projects that are “[p]rovisional, improvisational, guerrilla, unsolicited, tactical, temporary, informal, DIY, unplanned, participatory, [or] open-source.” If at least one of those words describes your project, which additionally meets the following criteria, then consider submitting it.

1. project was initiated by the architect/artist/planner/landscape architect/hacker/activist/citizen (in other words, no one asked for it), OR was initiated by an alternative client, for example, a non-profit or a community group

2. project is publicly accessible and serves the common good

3. project improves a problematic condition (solves a problem by making a place more accessible, inclusive, sustainable, beautiful, etc.)

4. project is located in an urban context or tackles urban issues in the United States

5. project is participatory in nature, or open access, and serves an underserved or overlooked constituency

6. project is realized, deployed, in action or use (not theoretical)

7. project may be a physical intervention in an urban context, or an information, communication or digital project that improves people’s comprehension, navigation and access to a city

The deadline is 30 January 2012.

Guerrilla Depaving

Guerrilla depaving is an illicit form of urbanism wherein impermeable hard surfaces are wholly removed or perforated to reveal the underlying soil bed. This site preparation precedes the introduction of agriculture, ornamental gardens, cryptoforests and other artisanal land-uses, which alleviate the urban heat island effect. However, the primary goal is to mitigate urban stormwater runoff by facilitating soil infiltration and seepage.

Pickaxes, sledgehammers and elbow grease are the usual tools of the guerrilla depaver, but these are being gradually replaced by robotics as fast as DARPA can declassify its research. A popular depaver is the BigDog, as it is cheaply available, easily programmable and configurable, and can traverse rough terrain en route to its target asphalt or while escaping. In the video above, a very early prototype can be seen tippy tapping on a parking lot, somewhat auguring its future reuse.

So far, guerrilla depaving activities are concentrated on medium-sized municipalities suffering from depressed tax revenues and minimal federal aid. These twin crises have left them unable to provide basic infrastructural services. Faced with the prospect of failed sewers, stagnant pools and destructive flooding, the guerrilla depaver works to knit an alternative urban hydrology.
Dispatches from the Sousveillance Zoo
Geiger Monkeys

As reported by CNN and other venues, Japanese scientists apparently want to recruit wild monkeys to measure radiation levels in Fukushima Prefecture, specifically in a mountainous area of the city of Minamisoma. Each animal will be outfitted with a collar containing a small radiation meter and a GPS transmitter. While aircrafts and satellites survey the terrain from above, these living geiger counters will be reading the landscape from the ground.

I'm immediately reminded here of a couple of things. First, the “video naturalist, landscape architect, museumologist” Sam Easterson has been strapping video cameras on to animals, enabling them “to guide us around their world; what they look at, what catches their attention, how they move through space, and how they relate to one another.”

Sam Easterson

When I posted about these four-legged cineastes some years ago—speculating, among other things, about techno-lupine vigilantes being released into national parks, where they'll sniff and snuff out invasive species mercilessly to preserve ecological purity—in the comments, Bryan Finoki went awesomely unhinged, writing:

These could be the new surveillance weapons of the future refugee, the Dr. Dolittle border-crosser, Africa's desperate asylum seekers, whom all need extra eyes in the field to watch out for those pesky minutemen and other not-so-nice clansmen and militias out hunting migrants for the sport of it. Cattle ranchers along the border could rig their roaming bulls with little cams to keep vigil and let border-crossers know when it is safe. Armadillo watch dogs.

Then again, this Sousveillance Zoo might not be deployed as countermeasures but rather used to augment weaponized geotextiles carpeting border hinterlands, demilitarized zones, involuntary parks and the perimeter parklands of gated communities. Whenever an aberrant activity is detected, butterflies will flutter forth aeolian alarms while wolves upload images to central command.

Perhaps a less malign critter from this cyborg bestiary is Liam Young's Electric Aurora.

Liam Young

This “flickering swarm of cybernetic fireflies play above the rooftops. As a mobile network infrastructure, the flock broadcasts its signal in a luminescent cloud, fading in and out over the city. Following the intensity of the electromagnetic spectrum, they map network strength across the sky.”

So at night, when you're out trawling for free wifi to check your Twitter timeline, or maybe to upload sensational videos of your protest camp being violently decamped by security forces, who are now trying to track you down on the burning streets, you simply look up and follow an iridescent trail to the nearest and most secure shimmering aurora.
Sholihuddi, Jawa Pos Daily, Indonesia, 1995

POSTSCRIPT #1: This photo was taken by Sholihuddin and originally published in Jawa Pos in 1995. It was awarded 1st prize for Spot News by the World Press Photo Foundation, who provides the following caption:

A military truck carrying over 100 youths keels over under its heavy load. The passengers were supporters of local football club Persebaya, enjoying a free ride home and waving flags to celebrate their team's victory. The truck - one of 24 made available by a military commander - capsized after only one kilometer. Most of the passengers escaped unharmed, but 12 were hospitalized with minor injuries.

Thanks, Anonymous, for your ace research skills.
Hacking the Super Robo-Farm

Japan is looking to turn some of the land devastated by the 2011 tsunami into a “robot-run super farm,” reports Wired UK via AFP. There, unmanned tractors will grow crops like rice, wheat, soybeans, fruit and vegetables. Once harvested, other agrobots will ready the produce for shipment.

Cue parallel world.

Long before the end of the six-year project, agrobots developed down on that farm were sent off to work on other farms and then to the farm next door. Soon fields after fields became overrun with them. Not even the small organic allotments were immune to the infestation.

growBot Garden

Imported to other wealthy countries experiencing similar labor problems brought on by an aging population, xenophobic immigration policies, and a highly educated younger generation unwilling to do dirty, backbreaking, monotonous work, a huge swathe of the world's agricultural sector achieved near total automation.

Apart from the mechanics needed for small repairs and one lonely operator hermetically sealed in a control room lit ablaze by the wall-to-wall cinematics of data streamed down by remote sensing satellites and drones, it's just the agrobots out there, busy tilling the soil, pruning the orchards and corralling the livestock.


Out on the periphery, meanwhile, an entire generation of young people has been squeezed out of the urban labor market, shoved down into poverty by high living costs. And the one industry that could now be providing them with much needed employment has also shut them out, somewhat ironic considering their former disdain for farm labor helped bring about their own obsolescence.

However, to stave off malnutrition, they've begun to use their high-tech skills to hack the system. That is, they've reprogrammed the packing agrobots to divert some of the produce to their homes, via processing centers bought from the US Postal Service by a consortium of Tor network operators. It's a sort of agro-torrenting.

The most leet among them will not just jerry rig the distribution infrastructure but also partition a patch—say, a small grove within a much larger orchard, one greenhouse out of thousands, a hen house in a huge poultry concern—which is tended to by a zombie agrobotnet. Out there in all that intercontinental acreage are Megaupload accounts in which you do your clandestine gardening remotely. To the satellites and drones hovering above, they are just dark spots on the landscape.

At the start of each week, you send out encrypted commands to have produce picked for you, and at the end of the week, you make ratatouille.

Live Bunker

For 25 EUR, you can treat yourself to a 3-hour performance that begins with a roadside ambush en route to the event site: a former Soviet bunker in Vilnius, Lithuania. Once there, you'll be lined-up, blindfolded, handcuffed and put behind bars. You'll also be interrogated and placed on trial. Now and then, a gruff man in a Red Army uniform will bark orders at you. That's in addition to the dogs.

This “Back to USSR drama” is geared towards “those who want to get as close to real experiences from old Soviet as you can get without being forced to do something you do not want to do.” But some limits will be pushed.

“If you want to fully enjoy daylight, you have to get into the dark for a while,” explains event creator Rūta Vanagaite in an interview by Vice Magazine. “If you want to fully enjoy your dinner, stay hungry for a while. If you want to fully enjoy democracy and freedom, come to our bunker and become a Soviet citizen for two hours.”

You can book your ticket through Baltic Adventures.

Bracket 3
Bracket 3

In case you need reminding, Bracket 3 is looking for critical articles and unpublished design projects that explore “architecture, infrastructure and technology [operating] in conditions of imbalance, negotiate tipping points and test limit states. In such conditions, the status quo is no longer possible; systems must extend performance and accommodate unpredictability. As new protocols emerge, new opportunities present themselves. Bracket [at Extremes] seeks innovative contributions interrogating extreme processes (technologies, operations) and extreme contexts (cultural, climatic). What is the breaking point of architecture at extremes?”

The deadline is 20 February 2012.

Also be on the lookout for Bracket [goes soft], scheduled to be available this month from Actar. Some of the projects in this second almanac sound like they also belong in the new one.
Detecting Neutrinos with Ice Shelves

I'm desperately hoping that someone out there has been cataloging examples of landscapes wholly transformed into a scientific instrument — from the ancient to the cutting-edge, from National Science Foundation proposals to the indulgently speculative, from the merely giant to the crazily monumental. It's an index that may have been retroactively instigated by BLDGBLOG's recent look into arctic sea ice “instrumentalized” into floating earthquake sensors. Perhaps the IceCube neutrino detector?

If there's no such archive yet, let me help out whoever wants to start it by suggesting, in addition to the aforementioned examples, that the ARIANNA neutrino detector array be included in the list.

Ross Ice Shelf

ARIANNA stands for Antarctic Ross Ice Shelf Antenna Neutrino Array. As its full name indicate, ARIANNA's array of monitor stations will be spread out across the Ross Ice Shelf. If the planned 10,000 stations are deployed, they will cover a 900-square-kilometer expanse of ice.

Unlike the IceCube, ARIANNA will be looking for a different kind of neutrino signal. Here's a diagram explaining how that signal is produced, and why the ice shelf is ideal for monitoring it (which has something to do with the reflective quality of the ice-water interface).


Given my limited knowledge of astrophysics, I'm left here imagining a National Science Foundation paying for the installations of hundreds of thousands of neutrinio monitors over the entire Ross Ice Shelf, thus turning it into an astronomical observatory nearly the size of France. Now and then, it breaks off a tiny piece, birthing a satellite detector. When the planet heats up, then one detector turns into hundreds or maybe thousands, all swirling about in the Southern Oceanic gyre.
Fuck Yeah Delta!
Yukon Delta
Earth TV
Here's a small favor. Please gather for me a dozen or so of those tablets PCs that have been pushed past their hilariously short half-lives by shinier models during the holidays just ended. Using your mad DIY skills, clamp them to my wall, lined up vertically. Then using your even madder hacker skills, turn the whole installation into a dedicated EarthNow! Landsat Image Viewer, a sort of earth TV from the US Geological Survey that displays, in real-time, images being gathered by the Landsat 5 and 7 satellites when they pass over the United States. So instead of simply visiting the website, I have a digital mural broadcasting the data for me live, scrolling strips of earth like a stock ticker tape. It switches on when the satellites are about to pass over, and goes dark after the last continental slice. Ideally, both times should be marked with a delightful chime.


If you've got time, how about attaching a 3D printer that will spit out an endless conveyor belt of topography?
Simulant Waves
David Bowen

Given my penchant for art installations that spatially actuate remote geographic data in (near) real-time—such as torch fountains that broadcast antipodean sunlight, plazas that quiver earthquakes half a continent away, and quaint water features on city centers that mimic the fluctuating water levels of peripheral reservoirs—I couldn't help but quickly add David Bowen's Tele-Present Water to the archives.

In that new piece, seen in the video above installed at The National Museum in Wroclaw, Poland, a mechanical grid structure is turned into a facsimile of a tiny patch of the Pacific Ocean, specifically the area around NOAA's data buoy Station 46246 at 49°59’7″ N 145°5’20″ W. As goes the patch, so goes the grid. It's a mixing of here and there that I can't resist likening to the instantaneous detection and conversion of catastrophic natural disasters, from tsunamis to volcanic eruptions to floods, into globally televised events.

In any case, why not also reverse the scenario? As museum visitors play around with the grid, the distant buoy simultaneously warps and heaves the surrounding water accordingly, for an audience of about zero.

Martian Sunrise
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