Thursday, March 17, 2016

Missing the Point in Port Covington

Kevin Plank, the CEO and founder of Baltimore based athletic company Under Armour, is interested in moving that company's headquarters to a new campus in a region of South Baltimore called Port Covington. As part of that move, Plank's real estate investment company, Sagamore Development, has quietly bought up all of the individual properties around this region, a little known and poorly connected waterfront area not far from Downtown. Sagamore has been working with architects and urban planners over the past several months to create a new masterplan for all of Plank's properties, including public amenities, new transit connections, and high density mixed use development. In order to realize a sufficient level of return on investment to attract outside interests, Sagamore says it needs to ask the city for a historically high $535 million in Tax Increment Financing, in order to create infrastructure.

This is an area that myself and my co-researcher Eric Leshinsky have looked into and written about extensively. We exhibited research in 2008 as part of the Baltimore Festival of Maps, for which we also led a bike tour to Port Covington. We conducted a workshop on this region at the City From Below conference in Baltimore in 2009, and we presented it as part of a peer reviewed paper at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture conference in 2010 in Montreal.

It was surprising to see this research - which outlines in great detail the way various grand visions and plans have been inadequate to organize territories like this, so subject to the uncertainties of markets, technologies, and physical erosion - used to support Sagamore's request for more public investment in this newest proposal. Economist, development consultant, and sometime NPR commentator Anirban Basu quoted heavily from our research, in many cases barely changing the construction of the essay's wording, and only citing one of two co-authors on the only credited direct quote, in an Op-Ed for the Baltimore Sun on Wednesday.

Our text, with its descriptions of lost opportunities, broken promises, and the ghostly presence of existing infrastructure, publicly funded, that was left unused by developers seeking only to flip the property, was somehow instrumentalized by Mr. Basu into a rallying cry for more public investment in private, for profit development. The existence of this disconnect, between what the research says, and what he says it says, is probably why he never linked to any version of the original article.

In 2001, the City of Baltimore was asked to build infrastructure for a shopping center that never was.

For example, in 1898, the city of Baltimore financed railroad infrastructure, specifically the creation of the Western Maryland Railroad, in order to compete with the Baltimore & Ohio line's high prices. The B&O had been co-founded by the city roughly seven decades earlier, in part to compete with emerging infrastructure capacity in New York and Philadelphia.
Leshinsky and Scharmen:
In 1898, the city of Baltimore subsidized the creation of the Western Maryland Railroad, intended as an alternative that would compete with the high prices of the Baltimore and Ohio line, which had also been co-founded by the city over 70 years earlier.
… the two rail networks born from public-private partnerships ran side by side without overlap to terminals on the South Baltimore peninsula, where they both unloaded Appalachian coal to ships that transported it up and down the Eastern seaboard.
Leshinsky and Scharmen:
The two networks ran side by side without overlapping to terminals on the South Baltimore peninsula, where they both unloaded coal from Appalachia to ships that would take it up down the East Coast.
In 1983, the B&O bought out its competitor, the Western Maryland Railroad, which shut down soon after.
Leshinsky and Scharmen:
The Western Maryland Railroad was bought out by its old competitor, the B&O, in 1983, and shut down soon after.
Starwood promised to attract a mix of retailers and to consider community recommendations to orient the buildings toward the water. The company said it would significantly expand public access and other community amenities. 
Leshinsky and Scharmen:
Starwood promised to bring a mix of retailers, and agreed to consider community recommendations to orient the buildings toward the water, and to "substantially enlarge the park area, incorporate walking paths, add sports fields, create picnic areas and include fishing and crabbing piers,"
In 2007, the Sam's Club closed. A Baltimore Business Journal article dated in March of that year quotes Starwood executive Arthur Hooper as stating that the "final phase of the development isn't something we were interested in doing. We're not long-term holders of projects. We brought in the big boxes."
Leshinsky and Scharmen:
In 2007, the Sam's Club closed, the building was painted gunmetal grey, ringed with security cameras, emptied, and put up for sale. The Baltimore Business journal quotes Starwood executive Arthur Hooper: "The final phase of development isn't something we were interested in doing, ... We're not long-term holders of projects. We brought in the big boxes. After that we're not in a position to deal with the local."
If Mr. Basu were a student of mine, I'd send him back to the drawing board, if not for the near-plagiarism and citation fail, then for the lack of reading comprehension.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Concerning Space Lettuce

The astronauts aboard the ISS (or, as the jargon has it, "on station") will eat food grown in space today. Despite the 50 year history of crewed space flight, the consumption of space lettuce represents the first time this has ever happened. This is now all over the science press, and the image used to accompany the story links is usually the one above. This Whole Foods in space has nothing to do with the ISS experiment, it was a rendering commissioned by NASA to illustrate possible concepts for growing food on Mars. The real garden on the ISS is barely bigger than a kitchen cabinet, and looks very different. Plants do not use the green parts of the sunlight spectrum, so if they are grown with artificial light, it saves energy to leave that piece of the spectrum out, making for an eerie purple light that looks strange to human eyes, the lettuce loves it. The difference between these two images reveals a lot about our preconceptions and the need for familiar things we take with us when we think about leaving the Earth and making new worlds.

In the 1970s, NASA brought together artists, planners, architects, ecologists, and other specialists to think about this on a scale that's hardly been approached before or since. The Summer Study team's mandate was to design self sustaining colonies (NASA preferred to call them "settlements") for 10,000 people and up, the largest were several miles long. Especially at the low end of these dramatically large scale objects, the question of human population density and carrying capacity is key when every bit of available open space must be manufactured from scratch. What are the social, material, nutritional, and psychological needs of a large human population, and how much room does all of the stuff that supports those needs take up. 

For example, how much park land is necessary to keep people sane and healthy? If they can't ever really leave the habitat without a mobile life support system, then in one sense, they are always indoors. In cities, parks have historically been a way to mitigate the stress of being completely surrounded by a hardscaped built environment all of the time. In the report, entitled Space Settlement, and published by NASA in 1976, the planners on the team examined large cities from around the world and came up with a healthy minimum of park square foot per person, and then they cut that number in half. The residents of these structures, they reasoned, won't need as much park land because there will also be other planted areas, devoted explicitly to agriculture, that they can also have access to. This is a rendering of one of those agricultural zones, painted by artist Rick Guidice.

In, one likes to picture, another conference room across the hall at the Summer Study, the agriculture experts were running their own numbers, and these ended up in the NASA report, too. The studied the maximum yield on record for various staple crops from around the world per square foot of farm, then they took that figure and doubled it. In the controlled environment of the habitat, they decided, conditions could be made ideal for growing crops year round. CO2 levels could be raised to twice what they are on Earth, and temperature and humidity levels could be kept at a maximum, so that the plants could flourish in abundant, nonstop sunshine. If pests or disease started to look like a problem in one area, then that area could be opened to vacuum and sterilized before any infection could spread. So the area that the urban designers were relying on for supplemental parkland would be, if the ecologists had their way, a carbon dioxide choked sweltering sunlit hell for humans, but a paradise for plants. The habitats in the NASA report appear to have been designed to these parameters, without resolving this contradiction.

This is not a story about the failure of design team members from different disciplines to crosscheck their assumptions … okay, it kind of is, but it's also a story about our own human-centric assumptions about what qualities a world should have. As anthropologist Michael Oman-Reagan has written, the interesting problem in thinking about space colonization is that right away we come hard up against this question of "what constitutes a world in the first place?" But also, we find that a related question asks "a world for who?" If we make a plant utopia, it's unlikely it will be a popular site for stir crazy humans to take weekend strolls. There's also another implication in this story, if plants don't see the color green, and the love to breathe the CO2 that's poison to us and changes the climate in ways we find dangerous - then have plants and humans ever even occupied the same world in the first place? Instead of the popular conception that we somehow share our world with other species, what the situation is more unstable than that? Instead of a clearly bounded sphere, we have something more like a shifting multidimensional Venn diagram, where some conditions are agreeable to all parties involved, but not by much, and not for long.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

17 Things About Brutalism

17 Things About Brutalism

(Reposted without permission from the @McKldnFntn twitter stream, starting here)

1) Can we talk about the Brutalism thing? Let's talk about the Brutalism thing.

2) We like to say that it's misunderstood, that it comes from the French: 'béton brut', or 'raw concrete'.

3) But the 'béton brut' origin myth, is not the full story.

4) I've got to be honest here, it's partly meant like it is, like it sounds: brutal.

5) Blame it on Reyner Banham, the project he identifies as the zero point of 'The New Brutalism' is a school by the Smithsons, w/ no concrete.

6) He means 'brutal' as in 'brutally honest', or 'brutally real', but also in another sense ...

7) … in his essay, is talking about an architecture that's rational, but also that manifests an emotional impact.

8) This is architecture that people have strong feelings about, and that's intentional. It doesn't fade into the background.

9) It's also a deeply optimistic architecture, made by people who really believed form could allow culture to change for the better.

10) We want our friends, like our cities, to do more than just comfort us, they should challenge and engage us.

11) Our friends, our architecture, and our cities, should be complex, diverse, open, and honest.

12) And the, often brutal, reality of civic life, is this isn't easy. It's hard. It's something we have to make a choice to address.

13) But if we erase these opportunities in our city to engage with difficulty and difference, we're worse off for it.

14) Demolition is admitting to ourselves that we'd rather believe half-truths, about form, function and material in cities.

15) To engage with brutalism is to engage with the very stuff that cities are made of: material & geometry, that's a platform for interaction.

16) You can erase that & install grass, or trees, but remember that before the trees, there was concrete, & concrete was for everyone.

17) The world is concrete, it is the metaphor that is not a metaphor. Reality is concrete, but also abstract, just like brutalism.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Shaky Tripod

From the inception of American architectural education, our discipline has always been an unstable hybrid. William Ware, the founder of MIT's program, observed in 1866, after studying architectural education in Europe, that: "the French courses of study are mainly artistic, and the German scientific, and the English practical." His program, one of the first in the nation, would represent an attempt at synthesis.

Today this uneasy balance of art, science, and practice is in more danger of collapsing than ever.

We've ceded speculation to designers from other disciplines, the best work about the future relationship between technology, design, and culture at large is now coming from the fields of product design and industrial design. Within architecture, the production of novel form is now almost instantly commodified in the global marketplaces, going wherever labor is cheap and politics are autocratic. We've lost the majority of the everyday built environment to dullness and risk-averse bad planning. Meanwhile, with the exception of too few responsible firms engaged in mentorship, we have a professional culture that privileges technical skill and low wages over critical thinking. And we have an academic culture that looks for hard, measurable, machine readable metrics to decide if education is taking place or not.

University cultures, now focused on quantitative assessment over narrative in annual reports, are asking how many faculty are licensed architects, and how many graduating students are going on to licensure, meanwhile our professional organizations are re-entering the academy in several ways. NAAB intends to merge with ACSA, and NCARB wants to retool curriculum so that students receive licensure upon graduation. This is against the backdrop of a university academic culture that's getting hollowed out from within, as administration expands while teachers are asked to do more with less. Never mind time for research and speculation about the future, the academy must produce students that serve the profession now, because offices want affordable labor in the seats at 9am Monday, and they'd best be proficient in the latest version of Revit.

What can American architectural education offer back to these challenges? We can re-emphasize the historical mandate of the M. Arch degree: sustained critique, sustained speculation, in parallel with practice, scholarship and service, as a complement to the profession-oriented pedagogy of the B. Arch, and the deep dive methodology of the PhD. We can advocate for a return to an attitude towards the study and practice of architecture that places it back alongside the liberal arts and the fine arts. 

The most useful things that architectural education can offer students in regards to professional practice are being buried under a futile race to keep up with software. If we teach practical skills, then let us focus on methodology over technique, the "why" over the "what." The proliferation of job descriptions designated "X Architect", where "X" is "Software", "Experience", or "User Interface", shows that other disciplines are hungry for the rigorous systems-level design methodologies that architectural education offers. And if one of the things we do best is speculation about the future, then let us serve practice by speculating with our students about the future of practice. This way, they will be able to anticipate, not the new plugins for parametric modeling that come out next week, but the new paradigms that will change how the built environment is made over the next decade. 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Blog all Dog-Eared Pages: Hyperobjects

Above, an 8oz styrofoam cup, after a trip a mile down below the Gulf of Mexico, at the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

(with apologies to Michal Migurski)

I've just finished Timothy Morton's 'Hyperobjects', which I'd seen pointed to by many trusted sources over the last few years. It'd been floating in my ambient awareness for a bit, and that interest was catalyzed by a reference from somewhere to this longform Q&A over skype between Morton and Hans Ulrich Obrist, at dis magazine. The conversation was part of Obrist's 'Extinction Marathon' at the Serpentine Gallery, which event as a whole seems a bit, er, problematic (at least in the styling). The convo between Obrist and Morton is fascinating, though. Obrist is in London, and Morton is in Texas, and there's a thunderstorm rolling in … I tore through it on my phone over morning coffee. It's worth reading in its entirety, and so is the book, just go do it.

Before reading this book, I'd just come off of Donna Haraway's 'When Species Meet', again, after hearing a lecture or two of Haraway's, and reading a few of her shorter pieces. I'd seen excerpts from 'Cyborg Manifesto', and 'The Companion Species Manifesto' (which reappears, in edited form, in 'When Species Meet'). Haraway writes and speaks, in several places, about 'staying with the trouble' when theory meets practice, which I read as an encouragement to remain close to difficulty and difference whenever those are encountered. This notion has been helpful in a recent drawing series I completed, that is explicitly about finding 'troubles' within systems and engaging with them. Haraway's work, as a way to think about (and think with, and live with) animals in a very clear eyed way, has also been helpful in another project I've recently launched: The Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency, of which more here (thanks, Analee Newitz and io9).

It's this admonition to stay with difficulty that I find to be the first compelling bridge between these two books. In Morton's 'Hyperobjects', the first half of the book catalogs the characteristics of hyperobjects, and the second half catalogs their effects and consequences. One of the consequences is 'Hypocrisies', which for him is not so much a pejorative, but more of an inescapable base state. In the time of hyperobjects, everyone is a hypocrite. No one is innocent or unaffected when it comes to things that are large and persistent like global warming, or nuclear power. This doesn't mean that the appropriate response to ubiquitous hypocrisy is cynicism or snark, but instead to, as Haraway might put it, stay with these troubles and acknowledge them as things to work with. Haraway's best examples are in the relationship between human and nonhuman genomes, both hyperobjects that have shaped each other through coevolution for millennia. There are few people on the planet who haven't benefited from the exploitation of animals and animal products, just as there are vanishingly few who haven't gained from the instrumentalization of petroleum or  plutonium, but this doesn't mean the answer is to give up engaging with these relationships, or to become cynical about hopelessness.

One of my favorite things about the book is that it wears its influences on its sleeve, and its influences, when they aren't art historical high culture, are almost all pop culture science fiction. The index shows references to Douglas Adams, Blade Runner, Buckaroo Banzai, Cthulhu, Doctor Who, The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Star Wars, Wall-E … all alongside artists like Laurie Anderson, Bridget Riley, and Alexander Rodchenko. Even when he's not calling these outright, a science fictional vibe is deeply informing the imagery:

p. 4, on postmodernism:
The globalizing sureness with which "there is no metalanguage" and "everything is a metaphor" are spoken in postmodernism means that postmodernism is nothing like what it takes itself to be, and is indeed just another version of the (white, Western, male) historical project. The ultimate goal of this project, it seems, was to set up a weird transit lounge outside of history in which the characters and technologies and ideas of the ages mill around in a state of mild, semiblissful confusion.

Without saying so directly, this invokes Douglas Adams' 'The Restaurant at the End of the Universe', especially since the subtitle of Morton's book is 'Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World'. Or maybe it's a slightly more obscure reference to the Doctor Who episode 'The End of the World', in which the characters visit a party on a space station set to observe the destruction of planet Earth, five billion years in the future.

p. 17, on space and posthumanity:
For now the possibility that we have loosed the shackles of the earthly to touch the face of the "human form divine" (Blake) seems like a wish fulfillment. According to hyperobjects, themselves, who seem to act a little like bit like the gigantic boot at the end of the Monty Python credits, outer space is a figment of our imagination: we are always inside an object.

This passage on aesthetics and temporality, from p. 91, represents, for me, one of the main goals of Morton's project here:
Just as a hard drive is a surface on which data is inscribed, so London is a series of surfces on which causality has been inscribed. There is no difference between causality and aesthetic appearance (aisthesis). - Appearance is the past, essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility - it's the future, somehow beamed into the "present". The futurality is meant by the term attractor, as in the Lorenz Attractor, as entity occupying a high-dimensional phase space that traces weather patterns.

This is what Morton means by the term 'hyperobject', he is expanding on the ways in which Object Oriented Ontologists like Graham Harman refer to 'objects'. Hyperobjects have, like the objects of OOO, their own existence and agency independent of human interaction, but hyperobjects are so large, persistent, and complex that they are only perceivable as such by thinking in terms of other spatial and temporal dimensions. And often, Morton hints that this (these?) other dimension(s?) are where the self existing, unperceived, identity or essence of all objects, not just hyperobjects, resides and radiates from. The question of essence as it relates to Harman's flavors of OOO has always felt a little unsettlingly Platonic to me, I prefer instead to think about, as Bruno Latour does, sticking to the relationships, and following the actors, rather than worrying about what's inside these black boxes, the appeal of extradimensional science fiction imagery notwithstanding.

p. 106, on his objections to concepts of naturalness and the world:
Ideology is not just in your head, it's in the shape of a Coke bottle. It's in the way some things appear "natural" - rolling hills and greenery - as if the Industrial Revolution had never occurred, and moreover, as if agriculture was Nature. The "landscape" look of agriculture is the original "greenwashing".

p. 119, more on "natural":
This confusion of sensual and real, in the terms of A House is a House for Me, is like thinking that bread really is a house for jam, and jam alone. Rather than simply an idea that occurs to me, and perhaps to the jam, when it finds itself slathered in there. Marmalade wants in on the bread? Too bad, marmalade is an artificial, unnatural parasite! Peanut butter? Illegal alien! Only jam is "natural", such that bread is only made-for-jam. See the problem with Nature? In OOO-ese, reification is precisely the reduction of a real object to its sensual appearance-for another object. Reification is the reduction of one entity to another's fantasy about it.

This is a particular difficulty I grapple with in regards to the Nonhuman Autonomous Space Agency.  In allowing the animals and robots to "communicate" via social media, partly based on projects like Botanicalls, No More Woof, and @houseofcoates, there is the risk of mistaking speaking-for for speaking-with, that is, reification and anthropomorphism. Two particular precedents I was interested in drawing on: memes that caption animal photos, like LOLcat and doge, and the growing trend of giving space exploration robots like NASA's Curiosity Rover official and unofficial twitter accounts that speak in the first person. Some friends were very kind to comment on the project in early phases. One friend who is a sociologist doing work in Animal Studies wrote me that she considered LOLcats and doge as examples of anthropomorphization, that they represented the projection of human desires and concerns onto the animals represented. An urbanist friend wrote me, with regard to a twitter conversation between Curiosity and the first Martian rock it sampled with a laser, that no human joker or PR person at NASA had the right to use a social media account that way: "only the basalt knows what the laser feels like".

Morton helps here, he offers an interpretation of something like 'mathematics' that brings it back to a Greek root: mathesis, which, counter to Positivist deployments of the word as "Mathesis Universalis", or 'Universal Learning' by Liebniz and Descartes, he translates loosely as 'getting used to' or 'growing accustomed'. Hence math and physics are aesthetic attempts to get used to the properties of objects. To extend Morton's argument maybe almost too far: math is a poem about the world. This is useful in thinking about ways to avoid reification and anthropomorphization - these are just bad attempts to get used to relationships between nonhumans. They are bad poems, as cynicism is a bad poem, and just because bad poems exist, that doesn't mean that it's impossible to make good poems. 

We can also see this when we make another comparison between Morton and Haraway. Morton uses 'world', to mean an illusory, singular, totality, this is what has ended in his book's subtitle. Haraway prefers 'worlding', not an object, but a process, and always a process alongside and with others. Let's place Haraway's 'becoming-with' alongside Morton's 'appearance-for'. This is what I hope to mean by saying that attempts to offer language to nonhumans in projects like NASA can be speaking with, not just speaking for.

p. 124, one final related note form Morton, on strangeness:
… what I call the strange stranger, the stranger whose strangeness is forever strange - it cannot be tamed or rationalized away. This stranger is not so unfamiliar: uncanny familiarity is one of the strange stranger's traits. Only consider anyone who has a long term partner: the person they wake up with every day is the strangest person they know.

There are other things to say, about how OOO in general works well with Haraway's call to for ways of thinking that challenge 'the tyranny of human exceptionalism', about Kim Stanley Robinson's notions of Martian geology and the agency of rocks on a planet empty of human people. I took a break in the middle of 'Hyperobjects' to read Robinson's 'The Memory of Whiteness', which is about the ability or not of art to have a causal or aesthetic relationship to aspects of the world(s). This book resonates well with Morton, and indeed, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a cover blurb for 'Hyperobjects'. 

If there's any objection I have to the category of hyperobjects that Morton describes here, is that this description isn't broad enough, and that it isn't personal enough. Much time is spent dwelling on global warming, petroleum, and radioactive materials as hyperobjects, and after a while these felt a bit overly sterile and mineral. What about genomes? The way Haraway, and other writers like Michael Pollan speculate about the agency of nonhuman plant and animal genomes, and their interaction in the long long term with the human genome, would place them in Morton's ontology. And what about imaging hyperobjects? How can we have a sci-fi inflected study of the identity of powerful objects like plutonium without mentioning Godzilla? Hyperobjects might be hard to understand, but one of the ways in which humans have historically attempted this understanding is by means of stories about monsters, mascots, and megafuana. What about markets? Futurist Justin Pickard suggests replacing the word 'markets' with 'dragons' when reading the news, resulting in sentences like 'dragons reacted with uncertainty to the latest report from the Federal Reserve …' 

Are hyperobjects really more like each other than they are like ordinary non-hyper 'objects'? How many types of hyperobject are there? How do they interact with one another? Ordinary objects at least seem to share a lightcone and a timespace substrate, if hyperobjects are too large in time and time space to relate to objects in ways that are consistent and comprehensible, then how do we use the existence of this category to formulate a way of being-with, and even speaking-with hyperobjects? As an extension of the increasingly broad use of the category 'object', Morton's hyperobjects are useful, and the work of further taxonomy remains.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

What does the International Space Station look like?

This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. I put out a call via twitter and facebook for quick drawings of the ISS from memory. Asking my social media friends for sketches wasn't some kind of contest about accuracy or skill, it was more an investigation into what sorts of visual responses come up when people think about the space station. The (totally unscientific) results reveal much about how we see and understand the built environment in outer space. The International Space Station is modular, and those modules have been moved around and added to over the course of its 16 year operational life so far. The station went through several redesigns, both during its conception and construction. Its image is also tied up with images of space stations in science fiction, speculative futurism, and alternate or parallel histories.

The International Space Station in May 2010, via Wikipedia
This image shows the state of the ISS in 2010, it reflects the current configuration pretty well. The shiny silver cylinders at the front are the American/European/Japanese modules, and the white, more complex pieces towards the rear are the Russian modules. The large truss extends out from the cluster of modules to hold the solar panels, radiators, and storage for more gear.

ISS Modules in 2011 (minus Pirs), via NASA and Wikipedia

Despite its existence in freefall, the station orients itself so that it flies like this all the time, with a clear up and down, front and back, left and right. The crew also uses these directions to orient themselves inside. The photo at the top of the post was taken during the second to last mission of the shuttle Atlantis, there were only three more shuttle flights after this, total, before the program was retired. This is the first problem with imaging the actual ISS, you need a spacecraft to do it, and there haven't been many opportunities since the end of the shuttle program. It's harder to take a good photo from the Soyuz ships, so we rely more on renderings.

Rendering of the ISS in 2011, via NASA
Note already another problem: the big solar panels, arguably the most prominent aspect of the structure, are moveable in two directions. They move to best present themselves to the sunlight as the station orbits the earth once every 90 minutes. The smaller folded radiator panels also move, to better stay in shadow.

Symmetry and Stacks

This drawing was maybe the most accurate one I received, if we think of the front of ISS as the right hand side of the drawing, then even the position of the Soyuz module near the rear is pretty good, although they usually dock on the bottom.

Another pretty accurate one, if we think of this as half the station only.

In the course of the station's construction, modules and other bits were continuously moved around to make room for new modules, so that the station was still able to best function at every phase. There were points in its existence where even the rough symmetry that we currently see was not present.

The ISS in 2006, via NASA

This drawing looks something like the stacked configuration of the station's very early phases.

The ISS in 2000, via NASA
The photo above shows a phase when the ISS consisted of, from top to bottom: an uncrewed Progress supply ship, based the Russian Soyuz design, the Russian Zvezda module, with the Russian Zarya module above, and the American Unity module on top. The drawing also recalls some of the earliest space stations built by the Soviets in the 1970s, the Salyut series.

Salyut 1, 1971
Here's another drawing of a stacked space station:

The Salyut series evolved into the Mir station, which lasted for 16 years until it was de-orbited in 2001.

Mir, circa 1995
The author of this drawing seems to be channeling the Mir's characteristic canted solar panels, which give it a kind of dragonfly look:

Hubble and Skylab

Others who responded may have been unconsciously referencing other existing structures in space, like the Hubble Space Telescope:

Here's the Hubble:

The Hubble Space Telescope
The above drawings also look somewhat like Skylab, which would have been symmetrical if the second solar panel wing had successfully deployed:

Skylab, ca 1975

Alternate Futures

Still other responders to the call may have been thinking of some classic spaceship and space station designs from the commercial world, science fiction, and speculative futurism:

The catamaran-like configuration of the above drawing is reminiscent of Virgin Galactic's Spaceship Two / White Knight Two arrangement for air launching their commercial spaceplane:

White Knight Two with Spaceship Two carried in the center
The above sketch also recalls some of the alternate design proposals for the International Space Station. In the 1980s, the Americans at NASA were investigating the creation of a large orbital facility that, at the time, they were calling 'Space Station Freedom'.

One of several design proposals for Space Station Freedom, ca 1986
At the same time, the Russian space program was working on designs for the successor to Mir, which would have been called simply Mir 2. The ISS, as the result of primarily American and Russian partnerships, is effectively a merger between Freedom and Mir 2:

Russian design for Mir 2

This drawing, which seems to show some kind of battle or emergency, looks like some of the spaceship / space station mashups in the movie Iron Sky:

Space battle scene from Iron Sky
(Iron Sky was a pretty awful film, with some pretty great visual effects and design.)

This drawing of a rotating space station is clearly influenced by some of the large scale space colonization proposals investigated by NASA in the 1970s:

A Bernal Sphere, painting by Rick Guidice, 1975, courtesy NASA Ames Research Center
The Bernal Sphere shows up in popular culture a lot, as well, most notably in Babylon 5.

As a side note, I have no idea what's going with this drawing:

Even NASA gets it wrong.

The formal structure of the ISS is so complicated that even official representations of the station often get it wrong. This model by Dragon shows the ISS at its intended final buildout phase:

Dragon scale model of ISS at buildout
To date, the large umbrella-like set of solar panels on a tower at the Russian end of the station has not been built, and it's unlikely that it ever will be. In any case, even if it is built, there certainly won't be a shuttle orbiter docked there, since they have all been stripped for museum display, and will never fly again.

Even NASA's official Android tablet app for the ISS has at least one incorrect detail. The module labeled as 'Docking Compartment 1: Pirs' in the screencap below is in the location that Pirs currently occupies, but the rendered module isn't Pirs. Instead the app is showing Nauka, a Russian module not due for launch until 2015, at the earliest. When it's launched, Pirs will be moved elsewhere.

Screengrab from NASA's ISS Android app, showing Nauka in place of Pirs

Greetings, Humans!

Maybe the most revealing aspect of this exercise came from one responder on faceook, who posted a space station sketch with the note: "Sorry I forgot to draw a stick figure Canadian astronaut playing Major Tom."

This was a reference to the former ISS Commander Chris Hadfield, whose photos and tweets from the station arguably did more to raise awareness on Earth about the ISS, its activities, and its importance since anything past the end of the shuttle program. Commander Hadfield's skillful use of social media probably reached its peak when he posted a video, shot and edited aboard the station, of a cover version of David Bowie's song 'Space Oddity':

Commander Chris Hadfield performs his modified cover of 'Space Oddity', 2013
The poster then changed his mind, and made a drawing of Hadfield anyway, to submit to the experiment:

This brings up a set of important issues. Since the end of the shuttle program, space exploration has no central image to associate itself with. The International Space Station is probably the most complex, most important piece of architecture ever made, but no one knows what it looks like. If an image in our heads of the ISS constantly collapses into science fiction, history, and imagined futures, while the real thing is moving and changing everyday, what can we relate to about this structure, if not its human inhabitants?

Megastructures and Megafauna

A spaceship, especially a spaceplane with wings, with its closed contour, basic symmetries, and forward facing directionality, is something that is easy to have an emotional relationship with. Like classical columns, we empathize with them as fellow bodies in space, performing a task. A complex megastructure like the International Space Station has indistinct boundaries, blurry formal hierarchies, and is constantly changing over time.

The space shuttle orbiter was the last great mascot for outer space, it was a classic charismatic megafauna. The structures we're building now don't have that same capacity to enable us to understand them and form relationships with them as other beings in the world. The way these drawings operate within a complex web of popular culture and speculative history illustrates that there may be other possible relationships we can form with structures besides recognizing them as bodies. If we can learn, visually and emotionally, to empathize and engage with systems in a more meaningful way, we can maybe better understand the complex work that is to be done on Earth and elsewhere.

If humans (or nonhumans) are going to marshal the resources, capital, and political will to explore and inhabit the rest of the solar system, we'll need to get control over this need our minds have to see and understand things visually, as well as emotionally.

(Thanks much to the friends who responded to this experiment with drawings! Including Adam Hu, Andrew Liebchen, Angus, Evan Chakroff, Gary Kachadourian, Jay Owens, Lou Joseph, Michael Petruzzo, Mike Riley, Neil Freeman, and Noah Saber-Freedman!)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Towards a General Theory of Cultural Containers

If you're a person who writes, you probably have that one friend who's always saying brilliant things, but they're not in the habit of writing regularly themselves, so it's difficult to get access to the ideas they come up with in a way that fits within the traditional means of constructing an argument or a position. Does an idea exist if it can't be cited or linked?

Anyway, my friend and sometime collaborator Eric Leshinsky is one of these people: unciteably brilliant. One of my favorite ideas that he's come up with is the notion of the 'cultural container', which I'd define as any venue, bounded in space or time, that allows cultural production to occur. He had the occasion to use this idea as part of one of D Center Baltimore's Design Conversations, back in 2008, more info on that is here. I've used it before as a foundational concept for some thoughts on isomorphisms between the social space of the web and social spaces in the built world, that became an article here.

I'm thinking of it again, because of the important role that boundaries play in the construction of the concept. A certain event starts at a certain time, and stops at another time. Production occurs within a room or a site. Thinking about boundaries and containers in general can be a way to recognize similarities between ideas about spatial and temporal structures, but the idea can also be applied to organizational, institutional, or disciplinary structures as well. Painting has traditionally concerned itself with certain questions, and not with others. Architects have practiced in ways that leave them professionally and legally separated from the financial decisions of their clients, or the moral decisions of contractors who build their work.

I am continually fascinated by cases like: 1) The Cooper Union, where a school that teaches art, engineering, and architecture, seems to have been financially compromised by its decision to commission a signature piece of architecture by Morphosis at the height of the real estate bubble. 2) Zaha Hadid's comments in the The Guardian, that "it's not my duty as an architect to look at it"; "it" here being the deaths of migrant workers at World Cup construction projects in Qatar, where her office has designed a stadium. 3) Similar concerns about the Guggenheim's presence as an anchor institution in Abu Dhabi, another place where working conditions have been sharply criticized. 4) The Folk Art Museum and #folkmoma, 5) Patrik Schumacher's missive on facebook ("stop confusing art and architecture"). 6) etc, etc, ...

So we have boundaries and containers; disciplinary specificity and outside context problems. Talking about this is partly a way to provide space for a diagram I made last year to attempt to explain a specific type of work that's produced under the banner of The Working Group on Adaptive Systems:

This diagram attempts to sort out the production of a set of projects in 2010 and 2011. The assumption behind it is that venues, institutions, events, or even projects themselves, when seen as cultural containers, can all be looked at in terms of their relative scale and qualities, and in terms of their relationship to each other. The lines represent different types of boundaries, and different types of connections between actors who are sequentially working to define those boundaries, and to produce other work inside them, especially where that 'other work' is the production of other, nested containers.

For example: at the top center, Evergreen Commons is a project from 2010, in which Eric, Ryan Patterson, and myself, were commissioned by the Evergreen House to create a piece of sculpture for their Biennial. We decided to experiment with the production of a cultural container instead, designing infrastructure, and reserving much of the project's budget to commission other artists to make work within the boundaries of the place we had made. One set of commissioned artists, Jaimes Mayhew and Marian April Glebes, were also themselves working under the banner of their own micro-institution, Services United. Jaimes, Marian, Eric, Ryan and others involved with this project showed up in some of the other projects as well (psNone Sodscape, and campcamp), in different capacities: sometimes working as themselves, sometimes working as a part of other groups and venues.

This is partly an attempt to instrumentalize the call from Bruno Latour, in especially 'Reassembling the Social', to keep everything flat, and follow the actors themselves as they construct frameworks, and then work within them (again, sequentially, not simultaneously). What this diagram suggests is that boundaries, instead of existing as barriers that silo work and keep it apart, are exactly what enables collaboration and interdisciplinary work to take place. These containers aren't givens, they are constructed by the participants themselves. And as long as one is aware of their provisional character, they can stepped into and and out of at different times, depending on their usefulness to the task at hand.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Spatial Intervention: Five Moments from #occupy

Some aspects of #occupy that stand out for their implications about the rough edges and overlaps in political control, spatial practice, spatial design, and spatial intervention:

1) Occupy Baltimore Mic Checks Karl Rove.
10 minutes into a speech at Johns Hopkins University on November 15th, protestors from Occupy Baltimore, who had mingled with the talk's audience, started up the People's Mic call-and-response protocol (which always begins with the phrase "Mic Check") to deliver a message: “Mic check. 'Mic check.' Karl Rove. 'Karl Rove.' Is the Architect. 'Is the Architect.'"

The use of the word 'Architect' to describe people who mastermind conspiracies and schemes of control is always fascinating. I've written in CRIT (pdf article link) and elsewhere about the need on the part of those trained in architecture and spatial disciplines to reclaim the broader use of the word, and scheme for the greater good instead of the perceived evil.

2) Occupy Wall Street Bat Signal on the Verizon Building.
In a carefully planned and timed maneuver coordinated to correspond with the march across the Brooklyn Bridge, messages from Occupy chants were projected onto the blank facade of the "Verizon Building" (375 Pearl St., so-named because of a large lighted Verizon ad) facing the bridge.

In this interview, it's noted that the messages were projected by the organizers from a private family apartment, the space was donated by the residents for the use of #occupy that evening: "opposite the Verizon building, there is a bunch of city housing. Subsidized, rent-controlled. There's a lack of services, lights are out in the hallways, the housing feels like jails, like prisons."

This description matches the Alfred E. Smith Houses, a set of cruciform, Corbusian Towers-in-the-Park built by the New York City Housing Authority during the Robert Moses era. The towers in Le Corbusier's original Radiant City plan were intended to be office buildings, not housing, but the image of hand of the architect, autocratically clearing away old for new, has become, in a thousand lectures on urbanism, synonymous with the idea of the Evil Architect, and the misguided social intentions of Modernism in general.

The text from the projection reads:


3) Occupy UC Davis Kettles the Police.
The beginning of the video linked above is difficult to watch, police have been tasked with removing tents from the quad at UC Davis, students occupying the tents sit down and link hands peacefully around the tents. In a sickening act of police brutality, an officer pepper sprays the entire line.

By around the 6 minute mark into the clip, the atmosphere has changed completely. The students have advanced on the police in a line, they have kettled the police, surrounding and confining them in a space defined by a ring of people. The police are in a tactical retreat, but at the last moment, the officer in charge pauses and begins shaking his canisters of pepper spray menacingly. Suddenly the chants fade from "Shame on you! Shame on you!" to another Mic Check: "We will give you 'We will give you' a moment of peace 'a moment of peace'" and finally: "You can go" is picked up in a chant: "You can go. You can go. You can go." The tension unfolds. The crowd has called something up, named it, understood its aggression as masked fear, and then banished it with unqualified impunity. The police, visibly confused at what has been done to them and how, turn and leave.

4) Occupy Fort Myers is recognized as Free Speech.
In what may, in retrospect, be understood as a landmark decision, a federal court in Florida has ruled that inhabitation can be a form of speech, and as such is protected, in certain circumstances, under the First Amendment.

4) Occupy Cal's Architecture School Launches Floating Tents.
The administration at UC Berkeley has, apparently without irony, banned camping on campus. In a symbolic circumvention of this ban, the architecture students at Berkeley have made floating tents, and floating banners to go along with them.

At least one commenter (thanks, @tweeds) has noted the intentional resonance with Archigram's Instant City project  of the 1960s. It is worth quoting in full the description of that project from Wikipedia:

Instant City is a mobile technological event that drifts into underdeveloped, drab towns via air (balloons) with provisional structures (performance spaces) in tow. The effect is a deliberate overstimulation to produce mass culture, with an embrace of advertising aesthetics. The whole endeavor is intended to eventually move on leaving behind advanced technology hook-ups.
#Occupy, with its smartphones, livestreams, projections, tents, inflatables, and pithy quotability, can be seen as a direct manifestation of the same impulse underlying the Instant City. As Chris Heathcote has noted in another context, Archigram were BASICALLY RIGHT. The link between protest, festival, media, and creative spatial practice can't be underscored enough, and the participatory structure of things like the People's Mic as practiced by #occupy is the antithesis of the image of the autocratic planner, designer, and schemer.

In 2004, an unnamed Bush administration aide, widely understood to be Karl Rove (The Architect) told a writer from the New York Times Magazine:

"We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
Some on the Left in America have since embraced the idea that they are the "Reality Based Community" that this quote dismisses as merely following and interpreting the creative acts of cultural production in politics. They would characterize the attitude of Rove expressed here as embodying a "Faith Based Community" with no connection to facts.

The creative spatial practices of #occupy suggest a different way: that the arrogance of The Architect in presupposing that his particular acts of reality creation are the ones that others have to deal with, study, and occupy, is now recognized as a symptom of fear. Other models of spatial production, and indeed, even of reality creation - based in collaboration, smaller in scale, briefer in time, and unfolding from a ground of love, not fear - have the potential to defuse the political control over the built environment. Inhabitation is speech, and it can create new realities. The method is less faith, and more magic, and watching this method deployed, it's hard to argue against the message that another world is possible.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Licensure and How the Future is Going to Get Even More Weird

I have some thoughts on professional licensure in architecture included in this article in Architect magazine. The article was written by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson, she's done an excellent job of sorting out a sticky set of issues, through which there are no easy resolutions: academics, professional liability, the roles of the many organizations that regulate aspects of the profession, and the "threat" of a Lost Generation. As usual, Archinect has a great discussion about the article as well.

This is a topic that's near to the interests represented here, I've written about it from the point of view of titular protection, alternative examination structures, and here (pdf link), for the AIAS Journal CRIT, popular perception of skill sets.

It's worth bringing up again. Thinking about these issues as a teacher, now that I'm rereading the finished article, makes me begin to wonder, not about a current Lost Generation, but about the next few generations down the line. Re-examining paths to licensure and registration is going to be even more important for a discipline that wants to wrangle the talents of the generation who are currently just starting out. In the past few years I've taught introductory architecture and design to two groups of first year grad students, three groups of sophomores, and two groups of freshmen, at three different schools. I'm here to tell you that these kids are good, and there's a lot of 'em. If the current group of recent grads is seeming ambitious, talented, numerous, and kind of confused, just wait til you meet the ones who will be coming out with professional degrees in the next four years. It's on us to get this licensing and terminology mess sorted out in time for us all to get down to the real work.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Soft Landscapes: Post Natural Ecologies Lecture Mini-Series

Very excited to have been invited by Rob Holmes of mammoth to give his Landscape Studio a version of the talk on the Middle Branch that I delivered at the ACSA Conference in March in Montreal. This will take place in the Red Room at Virginia Tech, this coming tuesday, the 25th, at 5:15. If you're in town, come by. Rob has also invited Brett Milligan of Free Association Design to speak on friday, so it's officially a thing: SOFT LANDSCAPES: Post-Natural Ecologies Lecture Mini-Series.

For background on the Middle Branch material that I'll be covering, start here.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

2011-06-11 21.32.40a

2011-06-11 21.32.40a, originally uploaded by ske765book.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Marey_01_unaltered_sm, originally uploaded by ske765book.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Working Group on Adaptive Systems

Okay, so here's a new project that's a little while coming: The Working Group on Adaptive Systems.

A friend of mine asked for a Mission Statement, so here it is:

This is a strange time to be doing work in the city. All of the architects want to be planners, all of the planners want to be developers, all of the developers want to be artists, and all of the artists want to be scientists. The Working Group on Adaptive Systems is a vehicle for transdisciplinary research and open ended collaboration that embraces the adhoc, the loose fit, and the multi-scalar, in the service of making things that are real and new.

This is neither a hard launch nor a soft launch, we're skipping launch, we're working through launch. Projects posted here will be continuously added to, refined, extended, scrapped, mutated ... as will the format, so keep checking back for new things over the next few weeks, including brutalist public plaza sculpture with lasers, a greenroof fishfarm over a garage, and campcamping!

Here's that link one more time: The Working Group on Adaptive Systems

Friday, August 06, 2010

Elastic Centroids

Back at the end of June, I visited the geographic center of New York City. It's a pleasant spot, under the elevated portion of the J. The summertime afternoon light filters down, and bounces off the brightly colored signs and storefronts that line the long run of Broadway. Right at the corner, there's a classic Fenced Lot.


If you need an excuse to see it for yourself, here's a good one: it's part of Neil Freeman's Centroids and Asphalt, created for the Elastic City series of walks. Freeman's work, often with GIS and graphics software, is generated from the difficult-to-see geographic, historic, and material data that compose the structures and streets of cities. The large scale patterns and forms that Freeman finds here are somehow comfortingly familiar and displacingly beautiful at the same time.

(All Streets, Centered, Chicago, by Neil Freeman)

Neil's walk integrates these same concerns: material flow, plant and animal life, social history, and organizational geometry - all in real world terms, all within a few blocks of central Brooklyn.


The best thing about this exploration is that it's conducted *with* the walk's participants, rather than *to* them. A session in front of a rowhouse, listing the inputs and outputs of one specific building, had us all speculating about the difference between a private monopoly and a public utility, privileges and rights, discrete deliveries and continuous flows ...

As Elastic City's founder, Todd Shalom, says in this interview with Neil and Urban Omnibus:

"Walking tours bore me– that’s what podcasts are for. In contrast to traditional walking tours, which seem to re-tell somebody’s or some group’s past experience through data and facts, Elastic City walks strive for a more embodied experience in the present moment. These walks offer to widen the perspectives for participants."


Neil's walk will be held a few more times throughout the end of the summer. There's one tomorrow.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Some Notes

2010-08-02 16.18.20, originally uploaded by ske765book.

More with less: managerial and visionary expertise to examine existing inventories, find efficiencies, and build consensus around reconfiguration.

We like cheap because we like the aesthetics of efficiency.

Moving between disciplines requires a special kind of work in translation and metaphor.

Small and/or weird, and/or free

“Kill the brand, transfer the equity.”

Using default , conservative language to reinforce search engine results, talking to machines, not humans.

“In the bubble”


“Mission Driven”

Show us what we are and we tell you it’s wrong, we want to be seen as the kind of thing that we aspire to.

Show us who we think we are (Show us what we want to be).

Means over Ends: We draw something that looks cool, without remembering that it looks cool because it’s rare, and it’s rare because it’s expensive. When the time comes to figure out the implementation, we talk ourselves out of it because of the expense and difficulty.

In house labor is cheaper than field labor.

“This is unique, this is a parking garage in Kansas City.” “Do you like it?” “Yeah, it’s different.”

Different variation of a theme: discrete elements hung on an abstract diagram. Switching back and forth between levels, accepting givens and then exploding them to modify them at a global level. No, exploding is different, exploding is “make unique”, embedding something in the world at the next lower level. Editing the rules is fundamentally different, jumping one level up. Model lines and symbolic lines, an overlay of cognition back onto perception. You need a limited reference space (with a scale, conventions, etc.) in order to create and manipulate *stuff*.

We present the big ideas and people either decide they like them or not, then we spend two hours talking about details and politics of parking or carpets or something.

“Slipping” in reference to a deadline implies the future is a pit, an event as something hanging on the edge, slipping down. An indefinite delay or cancellation as a bottomless drop, like falling up into the sky …

These projects generate collateral eddies and flows, that are sometimes tangential to the primary direction, and sometimes swell up and swamp the original vector.

“My favorite reports.”

Ancient Magical Invocation of Doom: “Okay, we’re done, all we have to do now is print.”

“That way we’re improving student life, which was our fourth priority! Oh wait, that’s our third priority, increasing storage space was our fourth.”

Object --> #^# <-- Field

Less new construction, more internal rearrangement – phasing, planning, and adaptive reuse.

Thinking Small.

“They don’t learn to be better designers, they learn to be better operators.”

“Openness to an open-ended process.”

Those moments in meetings where people say: “what do we do next?”

Wednesday, July 07, 2010


Sphären_a, originally uploaded by ske765book.

Just a quick update to point at a new collection of my drawing and photography work assembled on Cargo Collective: link. Those following same here will see a few new things.

Also, there's a tumblr that I finally started using: 7UM6L5

Bigger and better news soon ...

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Adaptive Reuse

I'm thrilled to have an article in the current issue of the ACM's Interactions Magazine: Adaptive Reuse: Things, Containers, and Streets in the Architecture of the Social Web. Many thanks to Contributing Editor Molly Steenson for assistance and advice.

From at least the advent of the homepage, the words used to describe online places have been explicitly architectural and urban. If online organizational structures and real-world architecture have anything in common, this set of similarities has nothing to do with the qualities of form, space, and material that are usually appreciated in buildings. To speak in terms of information architecture, or cyberspace, is inadequate to describe the ways in which all of these structures, built or unbuilt, are produced and sustained by the social and economic systems that surround them.
The piece is, in many ways, a companion to an older article, from 2006, written as the result of a semester long research project in social media, enclosure, and architectures of control: "You must be logged in to do that!":

One does not escape the physical body into a noncorporeal cyberspace as a jailed man escapes from a prison into the wide world. If a body is recomposed as information, it is all the more subject to the specialized techniques of control: distributed surveillance, data aggregation, and the continuous modulation of production and access.
In the newer piece for Interactions, I'm particularly grateful to be able to reference some unpublished work by two friends and colleagues: Kio Stark's recasting of 'users' as 'constituents' returns the production of place into a more humanistic and democratic context; and Eric Leshinsky's usage of the term 'cultural containers' condenses the essential isomorphisms in the way spatial enclosure operates, both online and off.