Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Shock and Awe: failed landscapes and amphibious homes

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm

The other day my friend Dan voiced a thought I’d been having for some time now: ‘It’s pretty fascinating,’ he said from across the table, ‘how disasters can actually create beautiful things too. Like, climate change—there’s gonna be some bad stuff, but there’s always a lot of cool, really beautiful things that come out of our destruction.’ I’m paraphrasing, obviously. I tried to get at his conversational, yet insightful tone, but I don’t think I succeeded.

But I’d been thinking similar things since reading Jared Diamond’s account of the early settlement of Iceland, how after they arrived in their boats, settlers went about raising grains and sheep just as they had in the British Isles. Though at first glance the island appeared to be similar topographically, Iceland was unique in geography and climate, which greatly affected its growing season. Eventually, 96 percent of its forests were gone, and half of its grasslands destroyed. “By the 1800s,” wrote Stephen Leahy in Earth Island Journal, “Iceland had become Europe’s largest desert; the people starved, and the once prosperous country became one of the world’s poorest.”

So when you go look at Iceland’s beautifully carved geography, its vast ravines and barren moonscape, know that it is a wasteland. A product of human failure, the utter destruction of nearly an entire people. Yet we would be telling ourselves only a half-truth if we were only to mourn this landscape. We can’t deny its beauty any more than we can deny the beauty of a photograph taken of a storm that might go on to kill hundreds of people.

Thinking of our ecological future reminded me of a brief description in Jim Shepard’s “The Netherlands Lives With Water.” I’ve read more than my share of urban plans and proposals for when the world begins flooding—some hyperbolic, others frighteningly practical—and this one is one of the better ones, maybe because it’s fictional, but I’m guessing it has more to do with how realistic yet imaginative it is.

“Sea-facing barriers are inspected both by hand and by laser imaging. Smart dikes schedule their own maintenance based on sensors that detect seepage or changes in pressure and stability. Satellites track ocean currents and water-mass volumes. The areas most at risk have been divided into dike-ring compartments in an attempt to make the country a system of watertight doors. Our road and infrastructure networks now function independently of the ground layer. Nine entire neighborhoods have been made amphibious, built on hollow platforms that will rise with the water but remain anchored to submerged foundations. And besides the giant storm barriers, atop our dikes we’ve mounted titanium-braced walls that unfold from concrete channels, leviathan-like inflatable rubber dams, and special grasses grown on plastic-mat revetments to anchor the inner walls.”

Think this is just fiction? Amphibious homes? That’s exactly what Morphosis Architects created in New Orleans.The FLOAT House was built as part of Make It Right’s efforts, led in part by Brad Pitt, to make the Lower Ninth Ward livable again. The people at ArchInnovations explain:

“In the event of flooding, the [FLOAT House’s] chassis acts as a raft, allowing the house to rise vertically on guide posts, securely floating up to twelve feet as water levels rise. While not designed for occupants to remain in the home during a hurricane, this innovative structure aims to minimize catastrophic damage and preserve the homeowner’s investment in their property. This approach also allows for the early return of occupants in the aftermath of a hurricane or flood.”

Nothing is static. The world we know has already been greatly altered by past generations. The next time you look out onto a great plain, ask yourself if it was always barren.

Marwencol: A model WWII-era town is the backdrop for an unfolding narrative

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 22, 2011 at 6:50 am

Model building, I once thought, was just the tedium of young 4Hers across the country, a 20th-century hobby for kids with too much patience and parents who wouldn’t buy them video games. I didn’t play a lot of video games as a kid, but I didn’t put together many models either. I got bored even with rockets, which only had about five pieces, plus a handful of decals to slick on to the shaft and the nose cone. But for Mark Hogancamp, model building became an alternate reality—after his was violently destroyed.

“After being beaten into a brain-damaging coma by five men outside a bar,” writes the maker of a film about Mark, “Mark [built] a 1/6th scale World War II-era town in his backyard.” He named the town Marwencol, and filled it with action figures representing his friends and family. Mark then began photographing the town, which became a set for the unfurling dramas that played out among the pseudo-fictional townspeople.

Wired ran a story on Mark, explaining more:

“When Hogancamp emerged from a 9-day coma, he had no language, he could not walk and he could not eat without assistance. For twelve months, the ex-Navy man received state-sponsored physical and occupational therapy and regained many of his motor skills. Without medical insurance, however, Hogancamp was soon unable to afford the treatments. Lacking conventional rehabilitation, Hogancamp devised his own.

In Marwencol, Hogancamp’s avatar, Hogie, is assassinated and brought back to life by the town witch. He is tortured by the S.S. and then rescued at the last minute by three gun-toting women. Hogie is saved in a way Hogancamp could not be in real life. In place of real-world counselors and therapists, Hogancamp has created hundreds of imaginary ones.”

I haven’t seen the film yet, but I’m fascinated by this built-environment therapy. Could the world’s wounded recover more quickly and more completely if they too could build a fictional place in which to work out the effects of their trauma? Or is Mark an isolated case, where his interests and talent met the violence of the attack in an irreplicable rehabilitation?

Perhaps I’ll post a follow-up after I see the movie. In the meantime, check out the Wired story and the documentary’s website.

Several things under the surface (including extravagant subterranean playplaces)

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 20, 2011 at 10:02 am

I don’t know why I’m fascinated by the above rendering. It’s a plan for what Anna Rita Emili, Barbara Pellegrino, and Massimo Ilardi call Well House. It’s a new type of house, sunken and centered around a pool, with two levels below the living area used for collecting rainwater and serving a geothermal system.

It’s innovative, but it also feels sinister. Perhaps it’s because it too closely approximates the feeling of being trapped at the bottom of a real well. Or because it feels more like a prison than a home. Or because while the shape in the water is meant to be human, it’s vague enough to be a shark or something altogether more vicious.

Thinking about this reminded me of a part in The BLDGBLOG Book, which devotes 65 pages to “the underground,” in which Manaugh quotes a London Times writer reporting on the growing existence of extravagant complexes built beneath the homes of the super-rich. Manaugh writes:

This urge toward subterranean architectural eccentricity is transforming the very earth beneath London. We learn, for instance, that “billionaire Russian oligarchs, private-equity traders, and hedge-fund managers are engaged in a multimillion-pound game of one-upmanship as they vie with each other to dig ever bigger, wider, and deeper extensions.” Digging also helps London’s super-rich to avoid strict planning and conservation laws, as the houses they’ve been extending into the earth are usally listed structures and thus cant be visibly altered. Many of these houses thus now “have more space below ground than above it,” we read.

Later he quotes a whole passage about one man’s ridiculous set-up.

“One home in north London even has a bespoke chute covered in a special slippery paint, which enables the owner, who loves swimming first thing in the morning, but hates the fuss of dressing, to step out of bed and slide straight into the water a couple stories below.”

No doubt most of us dreamt of something like this as a kid. Rope ladders from third-story towers down into secret basement passageways. Firemen’s poles into underground playgrounds. Etc.

The theme of our downward direction brought to mind one of the funnier things I’ve seen in a while. My friend Donnie animated this short clip as part of his Bleep-Bloop comics series. Well done, Donnie.

Northern Europe Migrants Organisation

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 14, 2011 at 11:42 pm

Is it possible to determine the size of a website, or its placement among the seemingly infinite and erratic pages inhabiting this mysterious non-space? If so, it is an infinitesimal nook that N.E.M.O. occupies, tucked away—and necessarily so—in some back corner of the Internet.

N.E.M.O. is the Northern European Migrants Organisation, a group helping ferry immigrants to the UK and using what appear to be old World War II bunkers to do it. A trip from Calais to the British Coast costs 290 euros.

The whole thing is a fiction actually, created by architecture students Felix de Montesquiou and Hugo Kaici. But they created the Web portal and everything; the ticket shown above was my confirmation for the boat that left yesterday. My seat was 1D. I was able to get English lessons while en route.

But the point of it was to focus on designing the “locus of the organisation within the architectural vocabulary of the WW2 bunker to camouflage the real function of this secret base.” I’d say they succeeded.

Also, on the website, they’ve posted a catalog of real WWII bunkers they used for inspiration. Check it out, and while you’re at it, book your trip to freedom.

Gather ’round the table

In Excerpts on May 10, 2011 at 7:26 am

If the good people at GOOD have anything going for them, it’s that they’re ideas people:

With so many schools closing their doors due to budget cuts and declining enrollment, we asked GOOD readers to imagine a way to repurpose an abandoned school building so that the space once again serves the needs of its community. We’re thrilled to announce that our winner is the “Farm to Table Urban Food Center” designed by “illustrator, designer, thinker, writer, and story-teller” Caroline Hadilaksono.

The practical and innovative design is modeled on of the floor plan of her neighborhood school, Wilton Place Elementary School in Los Angeles. It includes an outdoor urban farm; forward-thinking indoor hydroponic farms and vertical gardens; a for-profit cafe, farmer’s market, and produce store; and a nonprofit kitchen for feeding the homeless community.

Launch the plan here.

COLLECTED: Tsunami stones, future cities, and 2 new hypothetical Chicagos

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 6, 2011 at 10:00 am


NEW YORK—James A. Reeves, a good man all around, recently helped create Urban Omnibus‘ 50 Ideas for the New City.

Enumerated lists are always handy (something I learned in law school), and the Fifty Ideas imagery taps into the bygone optimism of the World’s Fair and the muscle of the New Deal. A few months ago I came across a W.P.A. poster that said, “Real Americans Don’t Carry Debt!” and it struck me how much the government asked of its citizens in the past—and how much people were willing to give in return. Donate your aluminum. Roll up your sleeves. We can do it. With this spirit in mind, I drew dozens of ugly little napkin sketches which Kristina Kassem transformed into beautiful illustrations.Big American Night


THE JAPANESE COAST—As we dialogue about the future of our built environments, we would be remiss to not look back at the wisdom of our ancestors, who did not exist in some glorious golden age, but dealt with most of the same problems we deal with today. For instance: tsunamis. Earthquakes have shaken the Earth all throughout history, and any undersea rift will send waves rippling out, gaining mass and momentum until finally crashing into continental land mass. BLDGBLOG reports on ancient markers that helped the Japanese avoid destruction.

The stone tablet has stood on this forested hillside since before they were born, but the villagers have faithfully obeyed the stark warning carved on its weathered face: ‘Do not build your homes below this point!’ Residents say this injunction from their ancestors kept their tiny village of 11 households safely out of reach of the deadly tsunami last month that wiped out hundreds of miles of Japanese coast and rose to record heights near here. The waves stopped just 300 feet below the stone… Hundreds of so-called tsunami stones, some more than six centuries old, dot the coast of Japan, silent testimony to the past destruction that these lethal waves have frequented upon this earthquake-prone nation.BLDGBLOG


CHICAGO—Pruned released a slew of fictions over the past week, more installments to its (Im)possible Chicago series. Two of the five—#10 and #14—got me. The first paints a scene where enormous, near apocalyptic wildfires sweep through the Windy City every ten years. The second is more veiled, an alternate but more possible—imminent even?—version, rendered through a highly detailed list, painting Chicago as a tech-addicted, marginalized, universalist ghetto.

(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. … 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. … Whatever city they get next, it will be yet another fleeting thing, turning fugitive in ten years’ time.

:: :: ::

(Im)possible Chicago #10

Inside the walls, in the once sprawling city reduced, Rome-style, to a tiny enclave, are cybercafes where the mafia farm for World of Warcraft gold, McDonald’s with hot pot dining tables, ping pong halls, mobile repair shops selling jailbreak iPhones, e-waste recycling sweatshops, four-star capsule hotels, brothels inside Youth Hostels, pieds-à-terre, dormitories where college students cram into multi-level bunk beds, apothecaries, antique shops filled with Ming ceramics of questionable provenance, IMAX 3D movie palaces built in the Art Deco Chinoiserie style, chapels for Western-style white weddings, acupuncture centers, discothèques and Dance Dance Revolution arcades, coin-operated pissoirs, shadow puppet theaters, landscape architecture offices, mausoleums with the embalmed bodies of Richard M. Daley and other former mayors, topiary gardens, haberdasheries where tourists get outfitted with a Mao suit in just a couple of hours, Grant Achatz’s take-away, droning server farms, car dealerships, exoplanet radio observatories, Freemason lodges, aviaries and apiaries, abattoirs, salt mines holding the collections of the Field Museum of Natural History and the Art Institute of Chicago, cave pharms, slave labor camps, POW camps, the Obama Presidential Libraries, Apple Stores selling iPad knockoffs, bootleg DVDs and dumplings at the Genius Bar, sentient golf courses, baseball batting cages, foreign news bureaus of CCTV, favelas, Buddhist temples on the grounds of Protestant cemeteries on the grounds of the Holy Name Cathedral, which rents out one of its towers as a Falun Gong meditation center, the other as a synagogue, fog water catching stations, zeppelin loading docks, Boeing manufacturing plants, Starbucks, emergency AC cooling centers, bôiteries, karaoke bars, oxygen bars that always fill up whether or not there’s a methane alert, the venues for Postopolis! Chicago, AM radio stations, fabulous fabulous ballrooms for drag shows, hot-body contests, mock same-sex weddings, Chinese opera performances and the Miss Transgender USA beauty pageant, fishmongers, cordwainers, cobblers, tea houses, calligraphy schools, English language schools, elite boarding schools, charm schools and gao kao preparation night schools where students hook up to oxygen tanks in the hopes of increasing their concentration, National Ethnic Minority Theme Houses, outdoor escalators, sky elevators, wetland safari travel agencies, hutongs, fully immersive Cave Automatic Virtual Environments (or CAVEs), H&Ms, Zen-inspired spas, hipster boutiques, white guy rental agencies, watering holes for foreign consular workers, consulates, organ harvesting clinics, sanitariums, orphanages and missionaries, branches of the Louvre, the Guggenheim and the Tate, helipads, satellite campuses of the world’s leading universities, studio spaces in which guests for A Date with Luyu are interviewed via satellite, crematoriums and cremation ghats, windmills, grottos, giochi d’acqua, betting shops, bakeries, abortion clinics and cinemas that play all the films of Jia Zhanke all the time.—Pruned

Anyone But Frank: A TBE SHORT

In Excerpts on May 4, 2011 at 8:30 am

An Iowa-based philanthropist and architecture aficionado has offered a $300 million reward to any city anywhere in the world that dares to hire someone other than Frank Gehry to design its gleaming new art museum.

The Wall Street Journal story is here.

“With that, here’s crime for the evening”

In Excerpts, Thoughts on May 1, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Logan Square is a Chicago neighborhood on the back end of a total transformation. It’s gone from a largely Hispanic neighborhood populated by local Latino bakeries, furniture stores, and currency exchanges to a neighborhood so popular it got a write-up in The New York Times travel section. But like all neighborhoods in flux, a lot of the old remains, just behind the glossy facade of the new. One person who’s made it his job to examine one aspect of this—the neighborhood’s substantial amount of crime—is a fifteen-year-old boy who keeps a blog called the Avondale and Logan Square Crime Blotter. The amazing part is in his About section:

About me: I am a 15 year old male, with a condition known as Autism. You’d think a 15 year old like myself would be comitting lots of crime, or thugging outside, but I don’t do that in any way. I’d rather STOP crime in my neighborhood. … My hobbies are watching TV, going out on weekends to travel to various places in Chicago (also to take photographs of CTA buses, my favorite hobby of all time), being with family and friends, being on the computer, and of course, listening to Zone 12 on my police scanner.

Here’s a recent post, so you can see what one is like. There’s something beautifully sad yet comical in his tone, e.g. “So, with that, here’s crime for the evening.”

Good evening, everyone, it’s 6:37pm. What a day. I’ve been out for at least 5 hours. This morning, I went out to the community garden at Milwaukee and Monticello for a few hours to help garden, but not without stopping at McDonalds first for some breakfast, and after gardening, getting a haircut. So yep, I’ve been out. And it’s beautiful out. Most of today was in the 50s and 60s with sunshine. Right now, it’s in the lower 70s with clouds. Anyway, I’m going to monitor 25 from now until 10:45pm, then I’m switching over to 17 until midnight. So, with that, here’s crime for this evening.

7:06pm – Beat car 2524 has a traffic stop at 2810 N Avers.

7:07pm – Disturbance. 3741 W Shakespeare. Three men standing outside, loitering. They may be gang members.

7:45pm – Gang disturbance. Fullerton and Kostner. Several of them flashing gang signs.

7:46pm – The 7:45pm job is now coming in as a “battery in progress”. A female was hit in the face and is bleeding.

7:53pm – Check the well being. Diversey and Lawndale. Possible intoxicated caller said something about males in the alley.

7:59pm – 1) Criminal trespass. 2447 N Ridgeway. Three males in the vacant apartment. 2) Gang disturbance. 36X0 W Diversey. Six to eight males in black and yellow flashing gang signs.

8:18pm – DUI driver. Belmont and Hamlin. Black Honda Accord with a plate of L219057 is speeding towards Ridgeway with a drunk driver in it. He ran several lights.

8:20pm – Beat car 2525 is asking for a call back at 2447 Ridgeway.

9:13pm – Battery in progress. Diversey and Lawndale. Seven males beating on one in the alley. This intersection call also just had a gang disturbance call with males on the corner flashing.

9:28pm – Wires down. 4104 W Wellington.

9:46pm – This is just for information only, but there was a shooting on Beat 1731 last night. It happened around 1:35am at 3459 N Milwaukee Ave. Gunshots were fired outside of the location, then the victim was found, shot in the stomach. He was very uncooperative and didn’t give any information.

9:51pm – Loud music disturbance. 2705 N Monticello.

10:17pm – Gang disturbance. 3700 block of W Shakespeare.

10:19pm – 1) Gang disturbance. 2000 block of N Avers. They’re in Mozart Park and at the corner of Dickens and Avers. 2) Gang disturbance. Diversey and Kildare. Gang meeting going on in the alley.

10:35pm – Battery in progress. 4400 block of W Diversey. Calls coming in at Kostner and Kilbourn for a large fight, possibly gang-related. Multiple, multiple calls on it. Calls are coming in for near the Burger King as well.

10:37pm – Beat car 2525Robert is giving a slow down on this big fight. They’re scattering.

10:45pm – Now monitoring 17…

10:50pm – Loud music disturbance. 3524 W Melrose. Loud party.

12:00am – I’m gone for the night. I’ll be back in the morning with 25. Have a goodnight, everyone, and be safe.