Saturday, March 6, 2010

Glacier / Island / Storm: Three Tangents

This post has been written to respond to the "Glacier / Island / Storm" studio BLDGBLOG's Geoff Manaugh is currently running at Columbia GSAPP. To compliment this studio, Manaugh has organized a distributed conversation that is presently occurring across several architecture and design blogs.

The above video tracks monthly mean temperature readings as measured by a (gradually expanding) network of weather stations over the course of three centuries. This visualization was produced with data released by the United Kingdom's Met Office a few months ago as part of the #climatedata "data activism" initiative proposed by information designers Manuel Lima and Jer Thorp. It is a handy point of entry into a discussion about proposals of glacier building, land fabrication and storm engineering as the animation speaks to the manner in which we've instrumentalized our perception of weather, environmental and geographic systems. To engage in an ambitious venture such as co-opting a network of storm tracks that spans thousands of square kilometres, or deduce how a land mass was formed (in geological time) and rejig and fast-track parts of this process to engineer an island will undoubtedly require complex modelling. Design at this scale is inevitably difficult to represent as these kind of proposals—the hurricane on demand, the glacier freshwater delivery service, etc.—simply dwarf everything save massive infrastructural projects. In crafting these larger than life scenarios, the designer is charged not only with figuring out how to appropriate and amplify naturally occurring processes and forms, but convince the public that it is rational to do so.

While the territory occupied by "Glacier / Island / Storm" might sound like science-fiction (or perhaps James Bond film villainy), it might better be described as a direct challenge to the parameters within which architects and landscape architects conventionally operate – a provocation. Many of the blogs participating in this exercise are focusing on cataloguing case studies and identifying typologies, so to provide some counterpoint I will sketch out three tangents related to the spirit of the studio: architecture as weather control, representation and natural processes and issues of mobility and scale.

Nikola Tesla - Lightning Protector

Architecture as Weather Control

The construction of shelter is fundamentally connected to weather systems, one only need look as far as building practices within a cold climate to prove this fact. However, while there is an extended history of ritualistic engagement with the weather, it is worth noting that (probably) the first verifiable instance of weather modification was developed as an architectural assembly. A lightning rod is a metal rod or conductor attached to the highest portion of a building – if lightning strikes the building it will be drawn to the rod and the charge will be conducted to the ground instead of starting a fire or electrocuting a hapless occupant. The device was simultaneously developed by Ben Franklin and Prokop Diviš in the mid 1800s and later improved by Nikola Tesla (the above drawing is a detail from Tesla's "Lightning-Protector" patent from 1918). The lightning rod is an interesting precedent as it reveals a desire for structures to divert and control one of the more unpredictable and dangerous phenomena occurring during storms; this is an example of what we might refer to as architecture managing the weather rather than "owning it".

If devices like the lightning rod illustrate how architecture manages weather, Diller Scofidio + Renfro's Blur Building suggests how architecture might emulate it. Constructed for the Swiss Expo in 2002, this pavilion pumped water from the lake above which it was situated and redistributed the moisture as a heavy fog that enveloped the entire structure. The goal here was clearly an architecture of ephemerality, but one that obfuscated the primary sense with which occupants experience space – sight. A person moving through the Blur Building would only have been able to see a few metres in front of them, and these inhabitants did not so much occupy a conventional program as explore a constantly-evolving gaseous field. This is probably the textbook example of how atmospherics might intersect with built form, but given the context of "Glacier / Island / Storm" one can't help but ask: Why even bother with the building? Why not just The Blur?

Liz Diller in her 2007 TEDTalk: "Aside from keeping the rain out and producing some usable space, architecture is nothing but a special effects machine."

Fuller Projection of the Cryosphere

[diagram courtesy of Hugo Ahlenius]

Representation and Natural Processes

Rob Holmes in an excellent post on (among many things) time and landscape published on mammoth earlier this week:

A possibility: glaciers, islands, and storms are as much events as they are objects; as events, they are primarily composed of processes of accretion and erosion. A storm is a relatively brief event, a glacier is a very long event, and an island is an even longer event; yet all are, on a geological time scale, ephemeral.

This line of thinking highlights how glaciers, islands and storms are not only accumulations of forces and matter, but temporal events. Given the variance between the duration of a fleeting pulse storm and the incremental creep of glaciers across a landscape, a question arises: If architects were to take the reins of these phenomena, how would they communicate the intention of their designs? The graphics standards of this domain are more in tune with physical geography than architectural representation. Furthermore, how do drawing conventions like the cross section and elevation change when your materials are ice, soil and wind? Taking command of these elemental forces is not about creating polite zones of inhabitation but enacting fundamental environmental shifts that play out at a regional or continental scale.

The above projection of the cryosphere depicts a gradient of permafrost, glaciers, ice sheets and snow, a sprawling field that is intrinsically connected to discourses of freshwater, energy resources and sovereignty. A recalibration of this portion of the climate system could open up key trade routes but could just as easily raise sea levels. While these examples are dramatic they speak to the types of interdependencies one encounters when engaging these systems. Again: how does one represent proposals of this scale?

Martin John Callanan - A Planetary Order (Terrestrial Cloud Globe)

Let's return to the notion of temporal events mentioned above, specifically those pertaining to the atmosphere. A lucid representation of the earth-atmosphere interface can be found in Martin John Callanan's A Planetary Order (Terrestrial Cloud Globe). This artifact is a 3D model of global cloud coverage from a single moment in time – a view that not only presents the ephemeral, but the (virtually) unobtainable. An excerpt from Data Soliloquies, a book written by Callanan and Richard Hamblyn:

Unlike most of NASA's own data visualizations, the globe features no added colour, only the sculpted whiteness of the raw material that throws a maze of faint shadows across the structure. From out of these shadows, in the right angles of light, emerge the global cloud patterns as captured on 2 February 2009 at 0600 UTC precisely, and, under them, the implied outlines of the continents below, seen as though glimpsed through fog, or rather, through the mystifying quantity of atmospheric data that is currently being collected from the silent fleet of satellites in orbit some 36,000 kilometres out in space—an increasingly hertzian environment, where an electronic Babel of satellites, radio signals, text messages and security frequencies vibrates, day and night, with invisible streams of man-made weather.

This model is exciting because (beyond stock conversations about climate change) it illustrates how the topology of cloudscapes is a filter through which we can consider our activities on earth. It also foregrounds the degree to which we have quantified the atmosphere – perhaps remote sensing/satellite photography and cartography are the only mediums appropriate for communicating how we might operationalize glaciers, islands and storms. Meteorological imaging is an appropriate segue into the final vignette to be discussed, that of mobility and natural phenomena.

Andrea Polli - Atmospherics/Weather Works

Mobility and Scale

Pictured on the above left is a satellite image of the Presidents' Day storm that took place in February 1979 and buried much of the Midwest and East Coast under a half metre of snow. The headline of the New York Daily News describing this blizzard proclaimed SNEAK STORM CRIPPLES CITY as if to suggest this weather event was sentient and devious. The meteorological data from this storm was used as the basis for Atmospherics/Weather Works, a 2002-03 collaboration between artist Andrea Polli and scientists Glenn Van Knowe and Kenneth T. Waight. The project mapped the area affected by the storm and scaled this 1000km footprint down to the size of a small gallery/performance space (see the above right diagram which maps the space and illustrates the position of speakers). Meteorological data from the entire East Coast was used to model a multi-channel sonification of the storm. Some context on how the piece represented altitude and time:

A complete model of each storm has been created at 5 points of elevation: sea level, approximately 8500 feet, approximately 18,000 feet, approximately 35,000 feet, and approximately 60,000 feet (or, the top of the atmosphere), and each day’s storm activity is performed in full at each elevation. Each speaker performs a composition using data produced approximately every three minutes over a 24-hour period of the greatest storm activity.

Atmospherics/Weather Works is obviously a far cry from true reproduction of a storm but the idea of miniaturizing and redeploying a weather event is fascinating. Imagine a pint-sized storm like a dust devil whirling around a pristine gallery space or a wind tunnel recreation of a freak gust of wind. Although whimsical, these examples convey how we might play with the position and scale of natural phenomena to move them into spaces or roles that they wouldn't otherwise occupy.

For another example of a translated weather event see Katie Paterson's Streetlight Storm that ties the rhythm of lightning storms to the illumination of a Kent pier.

Alex Hartley - Nowhere Island

Another example of an artist project that examines scale and permanence is Alex Hartley's nowhereisland. As part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad the artist will move an arctic island to South West England. Hartley discovered the "football pitch-sized island" during a 2004 expedition to the High Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and registered it with The Norwegian Polar Institute. The plan for 2012:

A portion of the island will be transported to South West England through international waters and whilst en route it will apply for micronation status. The new 'micronation', nowhereisland, will navigate the entire 702 miles of coast around the South West region, visiting its ports and harbours, accompanied by a travelling embassy support vehicle. nowhereisland will embark from Poole and arrive in Weymouth and Portland for the duration of the Olympic sailing events, before continuing west and ending its journey in Bristol, the same port from which John Cabot set sail to search for the fabled North West passage.

This migration of a landform is equal parts audacious and mischievous. I wonder how the Polar Institute will feel about Hartley invalidating (or at least compromising) maps of this region. What a great idea though, taking an island out for a cruise – a nomadic performance piece. In considering nowhereisland Ethel Baraona Pohl & César Reyes Nájera astutely point out the relationship between this venture and Robert Smithson's Floating Island to Travel Around Manhattan, which was proposed in 1970 and realized 25 years after the artist's death.

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