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3 Jan. 2023

There was an article last year in the New York Times about a California start-up called Inversion that wants to “speed delivery of important items by storing them in orbit.”

[Image: Collage by BLDGBLOG.]

Their goal is to build “earth-orbiting capsules”—“hundreds or thousands of containers”—that could “deliver goods anywhere in the world from outer space.”

The company’s founders imagine the capsules could store artificial organs that are delivered to an operating room within a few hours or serve as mobile field hospitals floating in orbit that would be dispatched to remote areas of the planet.

Purely in terms of this logistical vision, I’m reminded of a DARPA proposal called the “Upward Falling Payloads” program. For that, critical goods, including weapons and war-fighting materiel—but, why not, perhaps also emergency organs for frontline surgery—could be stored underwater, in the middle of the ocean, using “deployable, unmanned, distributed systems that lie on the deep-ocean floor in special containers for years at a time. These deep-sea nodes would then be woken up remotely when needed and recalled to the surface. In other words, they ‘fall upward.’”

Whether or not either one of these plans is technically feasible is less interesting to me than the underlying idea of caching valuable objects in remote locations for later recovery. The world would become a series of hiding spots for artifacts and tools of potential future importance, the Earth reengineered for its archival utility.

Perhaps the Anthropocene is really just a world denuded of its ecological functions, all life other than human vacuously replaced by landscape-scale storage facilities housing just-in-time detritus—the psychosis of a species surrounded only by things it can store and retrieve at will.

2 Jan. 2023

[Image: “Forest and Sun” (1946) by Max Ernst.]

When I first saw this painting—“Forest and Sun” (1946) by Max Ernst, a composition and theme he continually revisited and changed over the course of his career—I mistook the tiny white squiggles in the lower right for a procession of human congregants or religious pilgrims, people approaching a huge, alien landform out of some strange act of homage or scientific curiosity. Alas, it’s just Max Ernst’s signature.

Whatever you’re approaching in 2023, may it be unfamiliar, potentially threatening, and new.

11 Sep. 2022

[Image: Collage by BLDGBLOG of public domain images from NASA and the Library of Congress.]

An opportunity to explore the use of muons as a tool for architectural and archaeological imaging came up this summer while I was in Europe for my Graham Foundation project, “Invisible Cities.”

Muons are cosmic particles, similar to neutrinos, that pass through us constantly—but also through solid rock and concrete, through cathedrals, pyramids, dams, and roads. In the 1960s, physicist Luis W. Alvarez of UC Berkeley launched a whole new form of architectural imaging when he realized that, if you can capture muons as they leave various structures—in Alvarez’s case, the Pyramid of Khafre outside Cairo—then you can create an image of what they’ve just passed through.

This is now known as muography—muon photography. Muography, as I describe it in a new story published in this weekend’s Financial Times Magazine—my first cover story!—is “one part comic-book superpower, one part cosmic photography.”

Fast-forward to 2022, and muons are on the cusp of being adopted as a new tool for infrastructural inspection, allowing engineers to peer inside the supports of bridges and freeways, inside the concrete of hydroelectric dams and high-rise apartment blocks, even inside the thick, dense masonry of Renaissance cathedrals and ancient temples, looking for signs of corrosion, decay, and impending collapse.

For the Financial Times, I went to Berlin to meet an engineer leading Germany’s federal effort to test and certify muon-inspection technology, with the goal of turning an obscure physics experiment into a commercial tool. The lab I visited there was incredible, an industrial space lit by skylights in the city’s southwest suburbs, filled with massive concrete monoliths, each marked with Agnes Martin-like grids. These dense concrete slabs—modern obelisks—are used to test non-destructive imaging technologies. In the piece, I compare the lab to a Brutalist sculpture garden.

While German authorities (in this case, working with a physicist at the University of Glasgow) work to set standards and protocols for muography in the global marketplace, the most charismatic proof-of-concept for muons’ future use might come from Florence, Italy.

That’s where a muon detector will likely be installed later this year, imaging the walls of Brunelleschi’s famous dome. The cathedral there is a constantly settling, dynamic system—far from static—and the overwhelming weight of Brunelleschi’s dome has produced large cracks in the church walls below. Those cracks have been growing wider for centuries, leading to enough concern that the entire church is now enreefed with measuring devices—“giving it a solid claim as the world’s most carefully monitored structure,” as the New York Times wrote as long ago as 1987.

[Image: Looking up into Brunelleschi’s Dome, Florence; photo by Geoff Manaugh.]

Because Brunelleschi left behind no drawings or even textual descriptions of how his dome had been assembled, today’s engineers remain in the dark about how to reinforce it. With walls up to two meters thick, the masonry is too dense for traditional imaging methods, such as radar and ultrasound. But muons can easily pass through the entire cathedral; they are generated freely by natural reactions between cosmic rays and the Earth’s upper atmosphere; and they can be detected with a device that requires almost no electricity to run.

In any case, I’ve been obsessed with muons for more than a decade, so this was an absolute thrill to report. The Financial Times has a rigorous paywall, however, so it will be hard to read the piece without a subscription, but if you see a copy of the magazine kicking around at your local newsstand, grab a copy and dive into the cosmic future of large-scale architectural imaging.

[Thanks again to the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts for funding this research. A great, but not widely known, book on Brunelleschi’s dome, with superb illustrations, is Brunelleschi’s Cupola by Giovanni Fanelli and Michele Fanelli.]

24 Aug. 2022

[Image: “Solomon’s Pools & ancient aqueducts…,” via Library of Congress.]

There’s a beautiful description over at New Scientist of a hypothetical new form of computing device, a “liquid crystal computer” in which calculations would move “like ripples through the liquid.”

According to researchers Žiga Kos and Jörn Dunkel, calculations would be performed by—and registered as—crystal orientations in the liquid, induced or controlled by electromagnetism: “Electric fields could… be used to manipulate the molecules to perform basic calculations, similar to how simple circuits called logic gates work in an ordinary computer. Calculations on the proposed computer would appear as ripples spreading through the liquid.”

Liquid-supercomputer facilities of the near-future might thus resemble not server farms but aquatic centers, sealed interiors lined with reflecting pools kept in different electromagnetic regimes. Although the air inside is utterly still, you watch as small ripples bounce and roll across the surface of each pool, depths triggered by equations. Thinking machines masked as hydrologic infrastructure. Cisterns and aqueducts. Computational hydrology.

There’s a line by William S. Burroughs that I probably quote too often, but I’m nevertheless reminded of again here. Burroughs once described “a vast mineral consciousness near absolute zero thinking in slow formations of crystal,” but perhaps this new vision is more akin to an oceanic consciousness thinking in slow tides and currents, liquid crystal waves of calculation breaking through the deep.

[Image: “The ancient swimming pool at Bath,” via Library of Congress.]

Briefly, given the prevalence of cauldron imagery in Western myth, there is something almost folkloristic about the idea of liquid technologies such as this—pools that can model the future or offer visions of other worlds.

In fact, it tangentially brings to mind another wild proposal: constructing the “Ultimately Large Telescope” [PDF], a vast spinning cauldron on the moon, reflecting astral light from a facility constructed inside the darkness of a lunar crater.

This hypothetical telescope, Universe Today explains, “would rely on liquids rather than coated glass (making it much cheaper to transport to the Moon). One type of liquid would be arranged in a spinning vat while a second metallic liquid (like mercury, which is reflective) would be positioned on top. The vat would spin continuously to keep the surface of the liquid in the correct parabolic shape to work as a mirror.” A witches’ cauldron on the moon, peering into space.

(Vaguely related: Dark Matter Mineralogy and Future Computers of Induced Crystal Flaws.)

14 Jun. 2022

[Image: From Kiessling’s Grosser Verkehrs-Plan von Berlin (1920).]

It’s funny to be back in Berlin, a city where I once thought I’d spend the rest of my life, first arriving here as a backpacker in 1998 and temporarily moving in with a woman 14 years older than me, who practiced Kabbalah and had twin dogs and who, when seeing that I had bought myself a portable typewriter because I was going through a William Burroughs phase, blessed it one night in her apartment near the synagogue in a ceremony with some sort of bronze sword. It’s almost literally unbelievable how long ago that was. More years have passed since I spent time in Berlin—supposedly to study German for grad school, but in reality organized entirely around going to Tresor—than I had been alive at the time.

Because I’m here again on a reporting trip, I was speaking yesterday evening with a former geophysicist who, when the Berlin Wall came down, found work doing site-remediation studies and heritage-mapping projects on land beneath the old path of the Wall. He was tasked with looking for environmental damage and unexploded ordnance, but also for older foundations and lost buildings, earlier versions of Berlin that might pose a structural threat to the city’s future or that needed to be recorded for cultural posterity.

Ironically, in a phase of my life I rarely think about, I wrote my graduate thesis on almost exactly this topic, focused specifically on Potsdamer Platz—once divided by the Wall—and the role of architectural drawings in communicating historical context. When I was first here, in 1998 into early 1999, Potsdamer Platz was still a titanic hole in the ground, an abyss flooded with groundwater, melted snow, and rain, a kind of maelström you could walk over on pedestrian bridges, where engineering firms were busy stabilizing the earth for what would become today’s corporate office parks.

As I told the former geophysicist last night, I remember hearing at the time that there were people down there, SCUBA diving in the floodwaters, performing geotechnical studies or welding rebar or looking for WWII bombs, I had no idea, but, whatever it was, their very existence took on an outsized imaginative role in my experience of the city. Berlin, destroyed by war, divided by architecture, where people SCUBA dive through an artificial sea at its broken center. It felt like a mandala, a cosmic diagram, with this inverted Mt. Meru at its heart, not an infinite mountain but a bottomless pit.

What was so interesting to me about Berlin at the time was that it felt like a triple-exposure photograph, the city’s future overlaid atop everything else in a Piranesian haze of unbuilt architecture, whole neighborhoods yet to be constructed, everything still possible, out of focus somehow. It was incoherent in an exhilaratingly literal sense. In Potsdamer Platz, what you thought was the surface of the Earth was actually a bridge; you were not standing on the Earth at all, or at least not on earth. It was the Anthropocene in miniature, a kind of masquerade, architecture pretending to be geology.

The more that was built, however, the more Berlin seemed to lose this inchoate appeal. The only people with the power to control the rebuilding process seemed to be automobile consortiums and international hotel groups, office-strategy consultants not wizards and ghosts or backpacking writers. Perhaps the city still feels like that to other people now—unfinished, splintered, jagged in a temporal sense, excitingly so, a city with its future still taking shape in the waves of an underground sea—but it seems to me that Berlin’s blur has been misfocused.

In any case, with the caveat that I am in Berlin this week for a very specific research project, so many people I’ve met have pointed to the fall of the Wall as an explosive moment for geophysical surveys in the East. Engineers were hired by the dozen to map, scan, and survey damaged ground left behind by a collapsed imperialist Empire, and the residues of history, its chemical spills and lost foundations, its military bunkers and archaeological remains, needed to be recorded. The ground itself was a subject of study, an historical medium. On top of that, new freeways were being built and expanded, heading east into Poland—and this, too, required geophysical surveys. The future of the region was, briefly, accessible only after looking down. The gateway to the future was terrestrial, a question of gravel and sand, forgotten basements and fallen walls.

The SCUBA divers of the Potsdamer Sea now feel like mascots of that time, dream figures submerged in the waves of a future their work enabled, swimming through historical murk with limited visibility and, air tanks draining, limited time. Their pit was soon filled, the hole annihilated, and the surface of the Earth—which was actually architecture—returned with amnesia.

31 Jan. 2022

I should have included this in A Burglar’s Guide to the City: a magical procedure used “to open every Kind of Lock, without a Key, and without making any noise,” whether you’re dealing with individual padlocks or entire prisons, taken from a 15th-century grimoire called The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin, the Mage, translated by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers.

The book also includes spells to demolish architecture and for detecting stolen and missing objects, all operating by way of linguistic grids and ritual repetitions. A kind of supernatural Sudoku.

On a superficially related note, I spent a day several years ago going through Aleister Crowley’s papers at the Harry Ransom Center at UT-Austin—boxes, folders, and envelopes stuffed with, among other things, hand-drawn magic squares similar to those seen here, alongside journals and typed works by Crowley and his colleagues.

Of course, the idea of magically-assisted burglary crews hitting buildings across central Texas—or, for that matter, here in Los Angeles where I live—suggests way too many plot possibilities to consider in one blog post.

Bank heists using magic-number grids, cued to the names of angels, to get past alarm keypads; infrastructure-obsessed criminals drawing black stars across maps of precious metal vaults and nearby stormwater networks; an introverted art-school grad painting medieval symbols on the backs of padlocks and walking away with millions; etc.

To this, I’ll briefly add that I studied Latin in both Middle and High School, where our teacher actually lived in his room—a story for another day—a wood-paneled chamber lined with floor-to-ceiling book shelves and marble statues everywhere, including a stained glass window overlooking our school’s back quad. But, amongst all those books, from Catullus to Ovid and beyond, was a shelf devoted to vampirism, lycanthropy, and witchcraft—including titles by Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers (translator of the book seen here). I used to spend hours reading through that stuff—witch trials, premature burial, people cursed to wander the Earth alone for eternity.

Perhaps needless to say, it was a liberal arts school. In fact, surreally, both Bradley Cooper, the actor, and Tyler Kepner, a baseball correspondent for the New York Times, went there, although I was ultimately kicked out before my junior year for writing an underground magazine that I published with a friend, using his mom’s photocopier.

In any case, The Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin, the Mage includes dozens of spells, if you’re into that sort of thing, although it was really just the magical locksport material that caught my eye.

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