A Few Urban Syndromes
Friday, July 13, 2012
Last month, I tweeted four psychological syndromes named after cities, and I think it's worth briefly mentioning them here, with the links for further investigation.
1) Paris Syndrome: wherein mainly Japanese tourists experience severe culture shock.
I've asked then, and I'll ask again: what other mental disorders are named after cities, particularly ones that are induced by a specific city? Peer reviewed, urban legends, literary, etc.
Could there be such a thing as a Berlin Syndrome, wherein you attach abnormal levels of affections to a barrier wall or a security fence? Could there be an epidemic of this, of which Banksy is Patient Zero, in the West Bank? How might a New York City Syndrome manifest itself? Chicago Syndrome?
In any case, I'd love to see a department of speculative urban syndromes at the Center for Disease Control, tucked away in the basement, crowded with filing cabinets and a poster, manned by two agents, one convinced of the growing aberrant psychosomatic effects of cities on a now mostly urban global population, the other a skeptic; you know them already, I think.
Thursday, July 12, 2012
A couple of years ago, Arquine magazine sponsored an ideas competition challenging entrants to design a flood observatory located on a flood plain of the Usumacinta River, near the town of Tenosique in south-eastern Mexico. The program also called for a museum and community center, a shelter and refuge, and a hostel.
For their entry, Taller Veinticuatro presented two structures. Hosting most of the program is a triangular tower measuring 48m tall. The second is a water basin in the form of a conical ziggurat, which is inverted and driven deep into ground, its upturned base measuring 40m in diameter. Alluding to the limestone geology of this part of Mexico, the designers refer to it as an artificial cenote.
This artificial cenote is, simply put, a rain gauge, with full capacity designed for a major storm event. It's also a rainwater harvester, which provides water to the tower.
While it's meant to observe terrestrial phenomena, the designers suggest that it could be used as an astronomical observatory.
One wishes the complex wasn't meant to serve so many functions; so many programs, so little supporting infrastructure. They only diminish the whole project. Cure it of its pestilential horror vacui, and we are left with a marvelous landscape instrument.
Macheted out of the jungle by archaeologists, these structures appear like ruins from a crypto-civilization, taking measurements of the terrain. However fruitless the endeavor is, they're constantly mapping that blurred boundary between solid ground and wet earth. A lost Jantar Mantar instrument, they stand in rigid opposition to all that softness, suppleness and ambiguity, getting inundated, stained and corroded. Soon enough, they become not just a flood observatory but a flood archive, the history coated on surfaces and accumulated in cracks, patinas which you can catalog and read.
A Proposal for an Ideas Competition Seeking Design Proposals for a Pavilion for Viewing the Coming Intergalactic Collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way
How will you concern yourself with issues of materials, technology, politics and economics, waxing and waning through countless eons? How do you imagine your users, your many million-times great-grandchildren, will come to experience it, being ultra-post-human as they are? Will you be that optimistic and not include a built-in fail safe monument to our extinct species? How will it endure such unimaginable timescales, when any potential site is subject to the hyper-migration of rivers and oceans, the deep exhalations of mountains, and continents splitting and evaporating? In an era of apocalypses, perhaps the only solution to our problems is to subject ourselves to the terrifying sublimity of deep time.
Two folds in the landscape, one extending the line of the ridge, the other extending the level of the road
Tuesday, July 10, 2012
To extend our pavilion festival briefly for another day, here some images of the new visitor center for the Giant's Causeway, the famous rock formation and popular tourist destination on the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland. Designed by Heneghan Peng Architects and built to replace the original center which burned down in 2000, it had its grand opening last week.
The usual suspects will no doubt be smitten by its green roof, which helps to seamlessly blend the building into its surroundings. Indeed, the center seems to have just been slipped under a “fold,” incised and lifted slightly off the ground. It's a landform building.
In the words of the architects, “There is no longer a building and landscape but building becomes landscape and the landscape itself remains spectacular and iconic.”
Here's another view of the façade. It has such a gorgeous rhythm to it, a horizon-bound movement that flings visitors out into the cliffsides, farmlands and coastlines. Evoking the towering pillars of the causeway, it also gives this newly reconfigured landscape a nice inner rhyming scheme.
Appennino the Pavilion
Despite a lull in China's never-ending parade of coming-out megaspectaculars, this summer's pavilion season still seems to be as rabid as any other year. Spend even a little time in any of the spatialist hot spots, and you'll be conked in the retina with Instagrams of the newly installed and/or the unapologetically Rococo renderings for the Tumblr-Pinterest-Twitter circuit. Should you be lucky enough to make the pilgrimage to the season-ending Venice Biennale, no doubt you'll be psychosomatically Florence Syndrome'd with pavilions within pavilions within pavilions, all swarming with the toterati.
In any case, I thought I'd insert myself into all the festivities with one of my favorite pavilions: Giovanni Bologna's Appennino.
Measuring about 35 feet tall, it's arguably the most spectacular feature of the gardens of Villa Medici at Pratolino, now part of Villa Demidoff, located about 7 miles north of Florence, Italy. A personification of the Apennine mountain ranges, it's sculpted as though on that liminal margin between landscape and man, its smooth skin emerging out of the rough terrain or morphing back into a mountain. He even has stalactites for a shaggy beard.
This colossal sculpture recalls the figure of Atlas in Virgil's Aeneid, and also the architect Dinocrates' proposal to shape Mount Athos into a man in honor of Alexander the Great.
With seemingly all the might of his hand, he squeezes the head of a monstrous beast, which spills a cascade of water out of its hell-mouth and into a fish pond.
Of course, the Appennino isn't just a sculpture. He's also a building.
Inside you will find a network of grottoes, their walls studded with shells, corals, pearls and crystals, and painted with frescoes of muscled men mining precious ores. In this way, Appennino is both mountains and abysses. You enter not only the belly of a garden giant but also down into the belly of the earth. There were also two working fountains, one of which portrayed Thetis, and located in his head is a chamber for a small orchestra.
I haven't been able to confirm this in any of the literature, but I've been told that there's also some sort of fireplace in the head. When lit, smoke would billow out of Appennino's nose, thus adding, I'd imagine, another sensory element to the Mannerist theatrics of a raging battle between god and beast.
For many, it's been an unrelenting period of record drought, suffocating high temperatures and epic wildfires. As a sort of salve for the end of another superheated week, and as an escape option for the weeks ahead, below is a video of scuba divers at Austria's Green Lake park.
“During the winter,” to quote the ever reliable Wikipedia, “the lake is only 1–2 m deep and the surrounding area is used as a county park. However, during the spring, when the temperature rises and the water melts, the basin of land below the mountains fill with water. The lake reaches its maximum depth of around 12 m from mid-May to June.” Seeing all that amazingly crystal-clear water and that submerged meadow freshly efflorescent, there's no wonder why it's a popular diving spot.
While that's hardly in an urban setting, I am nevertheless reminded of a festival in Rome once held during the city's sweltering summer. It's one my ultimate favorite spatial stories, and it involved blocking the drains of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi at Piazza Navona and letting the waters overflow and create a mini-lake. Crowded with all manner of vehicles, it was a sort of reincarnation of antique naumachiae, or mock naval battles, that may have been staged on that very same piazza, inside the former Stadium of Domitian, more than a thousand years previously.
This is how the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow described this urban cryo-spectacle:
Every Saturday afternoon in the sultry month of August, this spacious square is converted into a lake, by stopping the conduit-pipes which carry off the water of the fountains. Vehicles of every description, axle-deep, drive to and fro across the mimic lake; a dense crowd gathers around its margin, and a thousand tricks excite the loud laughter of the idle populace. Here is a fellow groping with a stick after his seafaring hat; there another splashing in the water in pursuit of a mischievous spaniel, who is swimming away with his show; while from a neighbouring balcony a noisy burst of military music fills the air, and gives fresh animation to the scene of mirth. This is one of the popular festivals of midsummer in Rome, and the merriest of them all.”
This temporary, theatrical reemergence of the marshy landscape on which the Eternal City was built, unfortunately, was last staged in 1866.
Setting aside concerns over peak-water (“It's the heat, I tell you!”), a city hollows out one of its parks into a crater (or an archipelago of parks, not just one; or maybe add quarries into its park system). When the temperatures are forecast to hit above 100°F for more than a day, the dams are uncorked. Along the shallow periphery, children frolic, while on deeper waters, scuba divers slither over and under park benches and swing sets, round public art installations in the round, and cool down next to drowned fountains. For the more adventurous, there are artificial cenotes filigreed with tunnels. Forget roof gardens and depaving asphalts, this is how cities should cool themselves.
Another city, gripped with delirium, decides to gouge its glacier-flattened grid with deep canyons, which are then plastered with meadows and planted with flowering orchards. Ur-dreams of fjords come true. At the start of its Midsummer Festival, the locks lining its Great Lake are raised, and this irrational exuberance in topography is transformed into a micro Marianas Trench, hosting mock sea battles, flotillas, pop-up aquariums and James Cameron.
Saturday, July 07, 2012
1) Is Europe at risk from a Chernobyl forest fire? “Much of the 30km exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear plant is pine forest,” and “[i]f ignited, one expert likens the potential effect to setting off a nuclear bomb in Eastern Europe. Wind could carry radioactive smoke particles large distances, not just in Ukraine, but right across the continent.”
2) It's record-breaking: “Currently, nearly 47 percent of the country suffers under drought conditions according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. If only the contiguous 48 states are considered, the figure jumps to approximately 56 percent.”
3) Rebecca Solnit on urban agriculture.
We are in an era when gardens are front and center for hopes and dreams of a better world or just a better neighborhood, or the fertile space where the two become one. There are farm advocates and food activists, progressive farmers and gardeners, and maybe most particular to this moment, there’s a lot of urban agriculture. These city projects hope to overcome the alienation of food, of labor, of embodiment, of land, the conflicts between production and consumption, between pleasure and work, the destructiveness of industrial agriculture, the growing problems of global food scarcity, seed loss. The list of ideals being planted and tended and sometimes harvested is endless, but the question is simple. What crops are you tending? What do you hope to grow? Hope? Community? Health? Pleasure? Justice? Gardens represent the idealism of this moment and its principal pitfall, I think. A garden can be, after all, either the ground you stand on to take on the world or how you retreat from it, and the difference is not always obvious.
4) Download Pietro Laureano's The Water Atlas: Traditional knowledge to combat desertification. [pdf, 130MB; via @namhenderson]
In this beautifully illustrated work, Pietro Laureano shares with us the fruits of more than a quarter of a century of careful observation of traditional knowledge and techniques applied to urban settlements and landscape resources management in all regions of the world. The book introduces us to very sophisticated, thousand-year-old, capacities developed by local communities and civilizations around the world, amongst which water harvesting techniques, recycling of organic wastes and used waters for soil fertility conservation or, in more general terms, the ecosystemic approach to town planning, are anything but new! The volume is also the most convincing illustration of the fact that, whereas modern technological solutions rely on separation and specialization and for most of the time imply the mobilization of external resources, traditional knowledge, which by its very nature applies the principle of integration and uses internal renewable inputs, has proved over time to be effective in the daily struggle of civilizations against adverse environments and, more recently, against desertification.
5) “The devastating wildfires in Colorado have provided a showcase for the latest technology in mapping and tracking emergencies. Esri and Google Maps are presenting maps of the fires that the two companies continuously update, demonstrating an increasingly popular method for disseminating emergency information.”
6) “The Dredgeman's Revelation” by Karen Russell is a short story about a young man working on a dredge barge in the Florida swamp during the Great Depression.
7) The first Watershed+ artist residency is now open for applications.
Watershed+ is an arts program embedded in the City of Calgary's Water Services Department. It aims to develop awareness and pleasure in the environment, not by changing water management practice, nor developing a uniform visual language, but by creating a climate of opportunity for water initiatives to build an emotional connection between people and the watershed.
Download the information packet here. The deadline is July 16, 2012.
8) For the hydrophiles, Watershed+ also has a terrific Tumblr blog, which has collected fire hydrant drinking fountains, Maya Lin's fish cleaning table art installation, used almost non-stop in season; the water-filled runnels of Freiburg, Germany; the Archipelago Cinema; the rock climbing wall of the Diga di Luzzone Dam in Tessin, Switzerland; and subterranean apartments in the underground storm drains of Las Vegas.
9) And DIY glaciers.
10) And also an owl, with the following caption: “The City and County of San Francisco is using birds of prey to keep ducks and other migratory waterfowl, that would defecate in what becomes drinking water, off the reservoir. By employing these birds and their handlers, San Francisco reduces the amount of chemicals needed to treat their drinking water.”
Extra Credit: What are meteorwrongs?
For reasons I haven't investigated yet, goats seem to be popular pharm animals. At the University of California at Davis, researchers have genetically modified a herd of goats to produce milk that could greatly enhance one's ability to fight off diarrhea-causing bacteria. At Texas A&M University, meanwhile, researchers are planning to turn goats into malaria vaccine factories. So while some are being corralled as eco-mowers-cum-performance artists into the feral voids of post-econopocalypse cities, these super-goats might someday be saving sick kids.
Perhaps the most famous are the BioSteel™ Goats, which were augmented with spider genes to produce milk containing silk protein. When processed, this “silk milk” is transformed into microfibers for use in making bullet-proof vests and medical sutures. When the company that created these goats went bankrupt, some were sent off “far away from people” to the old Plattsburgh Air Force Base in Plattsburgh, NY. There, they were housed in possibly the most restricted part of the base: inside a Cold War-era bunker that used to contain a sizable arsenal of nuclear bombs.
A couple ended up at the Canada Agriculture Museum. The status of the other goats appears to be unknown. And therein lies my recurrent spatial fantasies about transgenic goats.
Once their usefulness as test subjects has depleted — or their owners go bankrupt, the animals are redacted from the record and then sent to pastoral meadows. No sign anywhere on the property gives any hint as to their genetic peculiarities. There are no electric fences, no surveillance monitors, and no sirens for use when these quarantined transgenic storms escape and wreak havoc on the surrounding chromosomal landscape. Even the agents from the Department of Agriculture assigned to look after the herd are disguised as shepherds. So generically Arcadian are these pastures that genetic purists smelling for a pogrom will pass them by unaware. Sun-dappled they may be, but they're biogeographical dark spots under a perpetual total genomic eclipse.
South Central Void
With no travel plans this holiday week, I've been mostly doing some scopic driving on Google Maps. Yesterday, I had a look at the gamma field of the Institute of Radiation Breeding. Today, simply out of curiosity, I went to look at the former site of South Central Farm to check out what, if any, replaced the 14-acre community garden.
You might remember the shocking patch of greenery surrounded by industrial warehouses in South Los Angeles. Starting in the aftermath of the 1992 riots and for over a decade until they were evicted in 2006, hundreds of mostly immigrant families grew sugarcanes, corn, cactus, lettuce, winter squash, broccoli, lettuce and tomatillos; tended to their avocado, guava, banana and peach trees; planted chokecherries, herbs, chayotes, nettles and roses.
Now six years after the bulldozers came, this is what I found:
Note the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank to the south of the site. It's ironic that an organization with a mission to fight hunger in the city is located next to this idling food desert, this potentially productive landscape where families of modest means indeed once grew their own food but now, perhaps for some, are receiving help from the nonprofit.
Tuesday, July 03, 2012
Instigated by Japan restarting one of its nuclear reactors over the weekend since all of its nuclear power plants were shut down after last year's Fukushima disaster, I went on a scopic drive in search of the country's (and possibly the world's) lone gamma garden, just to have a look, and here it is:
While I can't be sure if it is indeed the only existing field of its kind in the world, it is the largest, according to its host, the Institute of Radiation Breeding. Measuring 100 meters in radius and enclosed by an 8-meter high shielding dike wall, crop species within are irradiated with gamma rays from a cobalt-60 source placed inside a central pole. The purpose here is to generate new traits, such as tolerance to fungus infection or consumer-friendlier fruit colors.
Here's a bit more on gamma fields by Paige Johnson from my interview with her last year:
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.
Zooming out, meanwhile, one notices a ridiculously high concentration of golf courses. Rather than see that as a testament to the sport's popularity in the country, I prefer to think of it as a terrestrial experiment gone wild. At night, when the scientists have gone home, aberrant landscape architects in their CBRN suits break inside to elevate the cobalt pole, or maybe install their own fantamagical source material, above the containment of the dike wall to irradiate the surrounding countryside in the hopes of inducing landscape mutations, beneficial or otherwise.
POSTSCRIPT #1: Some photos of the gamma field on the ground, including the central tower containing the radioactive material, here. Several of the images make clear that the field is sunken like a crater.
Nevada National Security Site Tours
On a whim, I went to see if new tour dates have opened up for the Nevada National Security Site Tours. Every year, whenever I remember to check, the schedule has already filled up, or at least those days when I can make a trip. Not this year, as it seems all dates next year are still available.
For those who haven't heard about this tour before, the Department of Energy take visitors on a day-long bus outing — free of charge! — through a “vast outdoor laboratory that is larger than the state of Rhode Island, to see firsthand, artifacts and archaeological sites from the early settlers, to the many relics remaining from nuclear weapons tests, nuclear rocket experiments, and a variety of other defense, environmental, and energy-related programs.”
Listed as points of interests in this atomic wasteland include the following:
Frenchman Flat, where on January 27, 1951, the first atmospheric nuclear test on the Nevada National Security Site, ABLE, took place. Thirteen subsequent atmospheric nuclear tests were conducted at the site between 1951 and 1962.
Of course, this still being a restricted access government area, you must send in your registration paperwork way in advance for a background check. I sent mine in for December 12, 2013, so fingers crossed, and if yours and mine are confirmed, I'll meet you there and then.
Now if only helicopter tours were allowed above Dugway Proving Ground.
Glacial Erratic Monuments
Sunday, July 01, 2012
I would love to see someone map out, just like what Ryan Thompson has done with Geneva's, all the glacial erratics in Chicago, its immediate environs and not-too-further afield, at least the more monumental ones, and if there are any to be found, as a sort of field guide to the city's ancestral (and far-future) landscape, intriguing hints at the primordial forces that shaped (and even today continue to influence) its urban history.
That, or build !melk et alia's rejected artificial glacier for Navy Pier.
POSTSCRIPT #1: See Jane Hutton's Distributed Evidence: Mapping Named Erratics in Making the Geologic Now:
This project maps a series of boulders that were plucked, transported, and deposited by the toe-line of the retreating Late-Wisconsin and pre-Wisconsin ice sheets in North America and subsequently named, relocated, modified, and celebrated by people. They are the glacially distributed sites of council meetings, picnics, political movements, and territorial markers. They are inscribed with discrepant personal, regional, and national narratives and at the same time they declare their foreign origin through their conspicuous mineral composition and form.
There's also this video of Hutton discussing her research at the Geologic Turn symposium at Taubman College on February 2012.