Friday, December 15, 2006

The Art of Notation

Excerpts from the works of Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933, Debica, Poland):

Opening Bars to Tren Ofiarom Hiroszimy (Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima) (1960)

Sound clusters from Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)

More from Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima (1960)

From Kosmognia (1970)

A Camera is a Gun is a Camera

Étienne-Jules Marey's Fusil Photographique (1882)

One of the first motion picture cameras was a weapon. In 1882, French physiologist Étienne Jules Marey used his Fusil Photographique, or “Camera Gun”, to photograph a flock of birds in flight. Marey’s device consisted of a photo magazine bolted atop the armature of an ordinary shotgun. A lens was placed at the end of the barrel, enabling Marey to film his subject. By squeezing the trigger repeatedly, Marey obtained a series of exposures that, when shown in sequence, revealed the actual motion of a bird in flight. The fact that one operated the Fusil like a gun is of remarkable significance. By aiming the Fusil, one constructed the subject of the photograph as a target.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Quantifiable Target

My research here at Yale revolves around issues of mapping and representation. In particular, I am interested in how Allied military planners incorporated visualization and computational technologies in deciding how to bomb German and Japanese targets during World War II. What I find fascinating is that data was used or manipulated – made absolute or indisputable – in order to justify not using advanced technologies for target selection. The ugly truth is that Allied policies in favor of accurate target selection were abandoned in favor of a campaign that allowed British and American bomber crews to systematically obliterate urban areas in Europe and Asia. And although the ultimate outcome of such polices led to the use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945, there is a sense that some military planners violated one of Tufte’s cardinal rules regarding the display of visual information – they failed to depict data in relation to other data.
The above diagram, featured in Peter Galison’s article "War Against the Center", Grey Room 4 (Summer 2001): pp. 7-33, is a chart created by members of the United States Strategic Bombing Survey in 1945. In calculating the effects of precision daylight bombing over European targets, the diagram shows that the majority of bombing attacks on German ball-bearing factories were part of precision (dark cross-hatching) as opposed to area (light cross-hatching) raids. However, the historical record tells us the exact opposite. For example, this diagram does not account for area incendiary raids against nonstrategic targets like Hamburg or Dresden, nor does it account for indiscriminate and collateral civilian casualties. The diagram also depicts the results of American bombing operations in a couple of days. No comparable data appears that depicts the results of British operations. Nor is there any language describing the extremely narrow and limited scope of the diagram. As with the examples iterated by Tufte in Visual Explanations – Dr. John Snow’s mapping of a cholera epidemic, and Morton Thiokol’s diagrams misrepresenting the conditions leading to the o-ring failure, which proved fatal for the Space Shuttle Challenger – the above diagram confirms that“design quality” must indeed stem from “intellectual quality.” If the motives behind the formulation of data are suspect, then the display of that data is equally corrupt.

Literal and Sonic Terrains

Those who have a general understanding of maps and international borders may be confused when reading the opening chapters of Vladimir Nabokov's bloated masterpiece Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969). One may notice that locations in the book ("Canady", "Mayne") bear a phonological similarity to places we notice when looking at a map ("Canada", "Maine"). In fact, the book has a distinct Amerussian flavor to it. It is as if Nabokov took a mercator projection of the world and folded it longitudinally -- the desired effect would be that some cities and features in Russia would be grafted on to North America. The superimposition of these two maps creates a new type of cognitive map -- a personal geography that invokes Nabokov's family roots in Czarist Russia as well as his fascination with American culture. Thumb through Lolita (1954), and as you listen to Humbert Humbert's transcontinental jaunt, you are in fact listening to a topographical description of then-contemporary American culture.

Texts of all kinds enjoy a certain status as a type of map. They not only act as a historical document, but they give an all-too subjective read on a particular landscape. The idea that a text is a kind of map (and vice versa, that a map is a kind of text) was definitely on Michel de Certau's mind when writing The Practice of Everyday Life (1984). To say that the book is about the quotidian strays off the mark. The book is about raising the quotidian, elevating the particularities of everyday existence -- a process that ostensibly reveals several common currents. It is as if de Certau is cracking the code of an impossibly complicated Enigma machine.

This process invokes a seemingly disconnected set of analytical tools. At some points, the text reads like a literary-theoretical exegesis. At other instances, it dwells on semiology and anthropology, as well as geography. However, de Certau's irreverence is such that one can take the varied analytical touchstones and apply them to other types of cultural products. In effect, The Practice of Everyday Life enables us to deploy a theoretical toolkit that allows for reading any type of cultural production as a spatial phenomenon -- in other words, a map. As Nabokov's books are a form of cognitive mapping, so are relics of popular culture.

Using de Certeau as a guide, I turn my attention to two specific types of pop culture products, and will engage on a slight and all-too brief investigation of these products as spatial phenomena. Popular music and comic books may provide hours of discourse for dorks and geeks -- yet often these two realms operate as a type of critical text. As they deploy beats, decibels and speech bubbles, popular music and comics directly engage issues about urbanism. But the actual process involved in the creation of music and comic books also speaks to their distinct urbanism.

Two types of popular music that reveal a critical urbanist bent in terms of content as well as authoring are punk and hip hop music. Critical hindsight affords us the ability to view punk music as a cultural relic. The origins of this movement are subject to debate, yet a reader can glean that punk music shared similar beginnings in both England and the United States. Whatever view one chooses to subscribe to, British and American-flavored punk variants shared antiauthoritarian and anticommericalist impulses. Punk music also has a distinct geographical tint to it. American punk bands in the early 80s, usually associated with the Washington DC-based Dischord Records, and the Los Angeles-based SST records have differing sonic and lyrical content. Dischord bands, such as Minor Threat and Rites of Spring, had a distinct political flavor. To these bands, a song was something like a sonic burst of pure energy and raw emotion -- the quintessential aural Molotov cocktail lobbed at unsuspecting listeners. Likewise, bands like Black Flag and the minutemen were a bit more sophisticated in their musical approach. Their musical references came from a wider spectrum, such as 70s-era heavy metal as well as jazz and R&B music. Those punk bands from middle areas - such as Minneapolis, Chicago, or Austin, were also diverse in their musical cues.

What unifies these bands is the notion of tactics. De Certeau refers to the tactic as a type of spatial re-appropriation, "a calculated action determined by the absence of a proper locus." A tactic is a device used by a person or persons at a disadvantage for quick, uncertain, and short-term gains. It can be a devious gesture as well -- de Certau likes to invoke the notion of le perruque (the wig) as a type of tactic. A Perruque is a trick, akin to using office stationery for personal purposes or any other device for unintended uses.

Cultural historian Dick Hebdige must have been thinking of tactics and perruques when writing about punk music in Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979). He thinks of the punk as a type of bricoleur, taking the emblems of everyday existence (i.e. a safety pin) and subverting it into a symbol of rebellion (an earring or nose-piercing). However, the notion of bricolage also extends to musical influences as well. Thus, in "Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs" (1982), the minutemen were able to use funk-inspired bass lines and drum rhythms to craft a new type of sonic samizdat. The lyrics also betray a tactic:
I'm waiting in third person
I'm collecting
Dispersing information labeled rations
Manifestoes are my windows and my proof
Locations and more rations outline my route
Likewise, in Austin, Texas, the Big Boys used their punk and funk cues to inspire youth to become bricoleurs and sonic collectors when they issued their clarion call: "GO START YOUR OWN BAND." Whereas the minutemen and Big Boys looked to their musical and visual aesthetic to promote their political agenda, Minneapolis-based Hüsker Dü took the subject of media-saturated urbanism head on. In "Divide and Conquer" (1985), lead singer Bob Mould screams amidst a wall of distorted guitar noise:
Well they divided up all the land
And we've got states and cities
Cities have their neighborhoods
And more subdivisions

There's lots of area codes
And nine digit zip codes
Secret decoder ring codes
Arteries, shopping nodes

It's not about my politics
Something happened way too quick
A bunch of men who played it sick
They divide, conquer
Early hip hop music not only has elements of the bricolage and tactic as well, but further demonstrates how such an approach has spatial ramifications. Like punks, hip hop artists subverted material items and musical cues for their own aesthetic and social aims. Reacting against stale and overcommercialzed disco and R&B music, the early avatars of hip hop music not only sought inspiration from European electronic music, but also reinterpreted contemporary popular music.

Perhaps a good way to characterize this aspect of early hip hop music involves an application of some of de Certau's ideas of theory and practice. In the end, hip hop can be thought of as a type of practical theory (or theory in practice). But perhaps the best way to describe it is as critical praxis. Hip hop music, through its modes of musical appropriation and sampling, applies de Certau's concept of "cut-up and turn-out." "Cutting-up" can be thought of as a tactic of appropriation: a cultural or material product is removed from its context. In the case of hip hop music, this can involve taking a drum track from Kraftwerk's Trans-Europe Express, ESG's U.F.O., or a James Brown horn cue. These are "turned-out" and re-contextualized in another product. Hence a mechanical, rote drum part played through an electronic drum machine is accented with samples from other pieces of music. In addition to this new product, lyrics can be added, and as is the case with Grandmaster Flash and Mellie Mel's "White Lines" or "The Message", can comment on diverse topics such as drug abuse and urban blight.

This critical praxis takes on a spatial and geographic aspect as well. Hip hop, although sharing a multitude of international influences, is quintessential New York music. There is much to be said about how these hip hop became an element of, and was a product of New York underground culture. However, hip hop can be thought of a music style that defines a specific spatial locus. The same can be said of punk music from Washington DC, London, New York, or Los Angeles. Through the deployment of tactics and theories, we can think of punk and hip hop as a type of sonic document. An aural, cognitive map that not only describes a specific location, but betrays the points of views of those artists who craft and compose the music.

Like popular music, the comic book is also another type of pop culture item that deploys elements of tactic and theory outlined by de Certeau. Scott McCloud defines a comic as "juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer". Yet I argue that the comic book is also a cognitive map whose creation also recalls some of de Certeau's ideas in different ways. One comic of particular interest is Alan Moore's and Dave Gibbons' The Watchmen (1987). This innovative comic has been the subject of many articles about the comic book genre -- and deservedly so, for it is something to be experienced. The storyline revolves around a group of aging superheroes who were once part of a unified crime-fighting unit, yet fell out of political favor. Only two of the former heroes -- a nihilistic, ultraviolent gumshoe named Rorschach, and a psychotic right-winged operative named The Comedian are left. It is the latter's unexpected murder that sets off a chain of events ultimately leading to an unusually prescient 9/11-like tragedy. In layout, presentation, and content, The Watchmen operates as a type of political commentary where everything, urban utopias, the Vietnam war, as well as the comic book genre itself, is dissected and deconstructed.

Moore and Gibbons' innovations in Watchmen show how a much-maligned visual form often associated with children's literature is elevated to the status of serious artistic discourse. In this in this sense that The Watchmen becomes a sort of tactic, a perruque that subverts the form and content of the comic book and recasts it in a wholly original fashion. Its creation also betrays a type of practical theory -- again, de Certeau's notions of cut-up and turn-out become the subject of critical inquiry. A look at the individual panels shows Moore and Gibbons playing with notions of flashback and foreshadowing. A series of intercalary "commentary" chapters -- which take the form of fake historical narratives -- also offers a new way of subverting psychoanalytic and hermeneutical modes not only for the sake of analyzing the comic book genre, but for creating a narrative as well. With Watchmen, Moore and Gibbons stake out a new literal and figurative territory, not only reclaiming a creative medium reserved for dorks and geeks, but doing so with unbridled and uncompromising panache.

This seemingly tenuous connection between punk, hip-hop, and comic books is not only enshrined in Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, where a punk band named Stately Wayne Manor plays at CBGB's, but in contemporary music as well, with Viktor Vaughn (aka MF Doom, aka Metal Face Doom, aka King Geedorah) takes on the persona of Dr. Doom (from the Fantastic Four comics).

As with Nabokov's Ada, contemporary comic books also take the guise of personal geographies. As Daniel Clowes' Ghost World takes on the subject of suburban ennui, Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in The World confronts the notion of a city. In Ware's graphic magnum-opus, Chicago becomes a literal and visual palimpsest. As we read the highly-stylized, ravishing and meticulously-arranged panels, Jimmy Corrigan's search for his family roots takes him on a historical re-visitation of Chicago's built environment. The buildings, the empty public spaces all become cenotaphs -- dead structures revealing the secret history of a metropolis. As Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quarter shows pre-World War Two Egypt as (to use Giuliana Bruno's terminology) an Atlas of Emotions, so does Ware's Chicago reveal the city as a personal diary entry. De Certau could very well be invoking comic books when he tells us
A series of articulated operations (gestural or mental)-- that is what writing literally is -- traces on the page the trajectories that sketch out words, sentences, and finally a system. In other terms, on the blank page, an itinerant, progressive, and regulated practice -- a 'walk' -- composes the artifact of another 'world' that is not received but rather made. The model of a productive reason is written on the nowhere of the paper. In many different forms, this text constructed on a proper space is the fundamental and generalized utopia of the modern West" (135).
It is in this and perhaps other ways that popular music and comic books may present a reclamation of space.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Aural Praxis

It's hard not to get excited about MIT Media Lab researcher Noah Vawter's Ambient Addition. From his own website:
Ambient Addition is a Walkman with binaural microphones. A tiny Digital Signal Processing (DSP) chip analyzes the microphone's sound and superimposes a layer of harmony and rhythm on top of the listener's world. In the new context, some surprising behaviors take place. Listeners tend to play with objects around them, sing to themselves, and wander toward tempting sound sources. With Ambient Addition, I'm hoping to make people think twice about the sounds they initiate as well as loosen up some inhibitions.

Not to overacademicize this, but Ambient Addition could very well be a literal (and aural) example of Peter Bürger's idea of incorporating art into the praxis of life.

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Architectonic Mirage: Friedlaender's The Fata Morgana Machine (1920)

For architecture historians, practitioners, and enthusiasts alike, the "history" game is irresistible. A glance at a contemporary building, for example, will no doubt invite comparisons with earlier work. The reverse operation -- taking an early source and analyzing how it may have influenced subsequent work, is also commonplace, and may yield surprising results. Take, for instance, this excerpt from Salomo Freidlaender's 1920 short story Fatamorganamaschine ("Fata Morgana Machine"). Friedlaender composed dark science fictions and fantasies in the vein of E.T.A. Hoffman or even John Collier. Friedlaender, often going by the pen name "Mynona", also has relevance for the architecture historian, as he was a friend of Paul Scheerbart's as well as a frequent contributor to Sturm magazine. When reading this excerpt, it is difficult not to think of current architectural obsessions with surface effect, responsive environments, as well as ideas of pervasiveness ... for indeed, the fata morgana machine is presented as a technology that may be ubiquitous in the not-so-distant future:
For many years Professor Pschorr had been preoccupied with one of the most interesting problems of film: his ideal was to achieve the optical reproduction of nature, art, and fantasy through a stereoscopic projection apparatus that would place its three-dimensional constructs into space without the aid of a projection screen. Up to this point, film and other forms of photography had been pursued only in one-eyed fashion. Pshorr used stereoscopic double lenses everywhere and, eventually, achieved three-dimensional constructs that were detached from the surface of the projection screen. When he had come that close to his ideal, he approached the Minister of War to lecture him about it. “But my dear Professor,” the Minister smiled, “what has your apparatus got to do with our technology of maneuvers and war?” The Professor looked at him with astonishment and imperceptibly shook his inventive head. It was incredible to him that the Minister did not have the foresight to recognize how important that apparatus was destined to become in times of war and peace. “Dear Minister,” he insisted, “would you permit me to take some shots of the maneuver so that you can convince yourself of the advantages of my apparatus?” … A couple of weeks after the maneuver, all the generals gathered in open terrain that was in part rolling, mountainous, and wooded, and that contained several large ponds and ravines, slopes, and a couple of villages. “First, dear Minister and honored generals, allow me to tell you that the whole landscape, including or own bodies, appears as nothing but a single, purely optical phantasmagoria. What is purely optical in it I will make disappear by superimposing projections of other things onto it.” He variously combined beams of floodlights and switched on a film reel, which began to run. Immediately the terrain transformed: forests became houses, villages became deserts, lakes and ravines became charming meadows; and suddenly one could see bustling military personnel engaged in battle. Of course, as they were stepping or riding into a meadow, they disappeared into a pond or a ravine. Indeed, even the troops themselves were frequently only optical illusions, so that real troops could no longer distinguish them from fake ones, and hence engaged in involuntary deceptions. Artillery lines appeared as pure optical illusions. “Since the possibility exists of combining, precisely and simultaneously, optical with acoustic effects, these visible but untouched cannons can boom as well, making the illusion perfect,” said Pschorr. “By the way, this invention is of course also useful for peaceful purposes. From now on, however, it will be very dangerous to distinguish things that are only visible from touchable ones. But life will become all the more interesting for it.” Following this he let a bomber squadron appear on the horizon. Well, the bombs were dropped, but they did their terrible damage only for the eye. Strangely enough, the Minister of War in the end decided against purchasing the apparatus. Full of anger, he claimed that war would become an impossibility that way. When the somewhat overly humanistic Pschorr exalted that effect, the Minister erupted: “You cannot turn to the Minister of War to put a dreadful end to war. That falls under the purview of my colleague, the Minister of Culture.” As the Minister of Culture prepared to buy the apparatus, his plans were vetoed by the Minister of Finance … Now the film corporation (the largest film trust) helped itself. Ever since this moment, film has become all-powerful in the world, but only through optical means. It is, quite simply, nature once again, in all its visibility and audibility. When a storm is brewing, for example, it is unclear whether this storm is only optically real or a real one through and through. Abnossah Pshorr has been exercising arbitrary technological power over the fata morgana, so that even the Orient fell into confusion when a recent fata morgana produced by solely technical means – conjuring Berlin and Potsdam for desert nomads – was taken for real. Pshorr rents out every desired landscape to innkeepers. Surrounding Kulick’s Hotel zur Wehmut these days is the Vierwaldstätter Lake. Herr v. Ohnheim enjoys his purely optical spouse. Mullack the proletarian resides in a purely optical palace, and billionaires protect their castles through their optical conversions into shacks.
Not too long ago, a doppelgänger factory was established … In the not too distant future, there will be whole cities made of light; entirely different constellations not only in the planetarium, but everywhere in nature as well. Pshorr predicts that we will also be able to have technological control over touch in a similar way: not until then will radio traffic with real bodies set in, which not just film but life, and which will leave far behind all traffic technologies ….
Excerpted in Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz, trans. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999): pp. 134-5.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Privacy Penumbra

When one thinks about any possible spatial praxes that may be associated with jurisprudence, he or she may well think of the intractable skein of laws dealing with territorial jurisdiction. However, the United States Supreme Court's decision in Griswold v. Connecticut 381 U.S. 479 (1965) contains an important tidbit that prefigures French thinker's Henri Lefebvre's famous iteration of different types of space in The Production of Space (1974) (English translation, 1991).

Justice Douglas' opinion in Griswold is one of the most-cited, and is a staple of Consitutional Law courses in American law schools. The facts are fairly well-known: in 1879, the State of Connecticut passed a law that banned contraceptives, a law that stood unchallenged for decades. Successive opinions in Poe v. Ullman (1943 and 1961), upheld the legality of the anti-contraceptive law. Later, in 1961, Estelle Griswold (above image, right), the Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a faculty member at the Yale School of Medicine wanted to test the legality of the 1879 statute and opened a birth control clinic in New Haven, Connecticut. The two were quickly arrested, prosecuted, fined, and subsequently appealed their convictions to the Supreme Court of the United States.

In a 7-2 opinion, Justice William O. Douglas declared that the Connecticut statute violated a right to marital privacy -- a right that was not explicit in the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution. Justice Douglas thus writes:
[S]pecific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance. ...Various guarantees create zones of privacy. The right of association contained in the penumbra of the First Amendment is one, as we have seen. The Third Amendment in its prohibition against the quartering of soldiers "in any house" in time of peace without the consent of the owner is another facet of that privacy. The Fourth Amendment explicitly affirms the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures." The Fifth Amendment in its Self-Incrimination Clause enables the citizen to create a zone of privacy which government may not force him to surrender to his detriment. The Ninth Amendment provides: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." (emphasis added)
The above quote is not only remarkable for it audacious reading of the Constitution (a reading that has been influential on generations of legal thinkers and practitioners), but also because it hints at the idea that the idea of privacy has a spatial component to it. Thus, the concurring Justices found some truth in the fact that various Constitutional guarantees of privacy have spatial consequences

This is reminiscent of Lefebvre's famous pronouncement regarding "Representational Space." In The Production of Space, Lefebvre defines representational space as:
[S]pace as directly lived through its associated images and symbols, and hence the space of 'inhabitants' and 'users' ... who describe and aspire to do no more than describe. This is the dominated -- and hence passively experienced -- space which the imagination seeks to change and appropriate. It overlays physical space, making symbolic use of its objects (1991[1974]:39).
Here is an iteration of produced space that is "alive" and that "speaks" (42). Lefebvre even echoes some of the court's pronouncements, telling us that representational space "has an affective kernel of centre: Ego, bed, bedroom, dwelling, house; or: square, church, graveyard. It embraces the loci of passion, of action and lived situations ..." (ibid.). It seems that this language is curiously evocative of Justice Douglas' penumbras and zones of privacy.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Scenographic Poelzig

Like other expressionist architects of his era, including Bruno Taut and Erich Mendelsohn, Hans Poelzig (1869-1936) is of special interest because of the diversity of his projects. On the one hand, Poelzig’s most famous buildings include his Grosses Schauspielhaus (1919) as well as his competition entry for the Salzburg Festspielhaus (1920-1921). These buildings evoke some of Poelzig’s most famous techniques -- a determined massing of organic forms, a full deployment of tonal shadows, as well as a distinct “building from the inside”, a result “of thinking, as it were, of the core of the apple before the skin.”

The Grosses Schauspielhaus deserves some momentary and special analysis as it becomes the alembic through which many of Poelzig’s architectural ideas are distilled and rarified. Specifically, the remarkable contrast between the building’s interior and exterior is worth mentioning. The “Stalactite Grotto”, the Schauspielhaus’ auditorium is perhaps the most-photographed and therefore most well-known part of the building.

From the top of the auditorium, the cupola begins as a small circle. This circle replicates itself, increasing in diameter as it approaches the seating. At each diameter increase, one takes note of a columnar formation, a colonnade (not a stoa) that clings and wraps itself to each level of the cupola. Yet this cladding of “columns” never reaches the next level below. They are perfectly, evenly spaced, but sitting in the auditorium, the interrupted columns give the impression that the cupola is actually comprised of stalactites. The accretion of substances from ages ago does not create these formations, but at least the illusion is there. One could very well think that the building was a cave, a structure formed by the persistent collection of Paleolithic detritus. This conceit continues on to last level, the largest and most outer ring of the cupola, that connects the auditorium seating at a series of supports. These supports, also clad in plaster stalactites, dwindle in size as they meet the ground. As Julius Posener, a student of Poelzig’s, once remarked, “The ‘supports’ do not look convincing.”

And if these figurative stalactite forms envelop the auditorium, the orchestra, as well as the proscenia, then what of the non-performative circulation spaces? A series of brightly-lit foyers with curved ceilings provide apertures to the grotto. Upon exiting (or entering) the auditorium space, one would certainly notice sets of lighted columns. These columns provide a perfect foil to the auditorium supports inside: instead of dead accreted matter, these supports look like lighted fountains. The grooved cladding runs upwards, as the column thickens, and explode in showers of light that literally drip down the curved ceilings and onto the walls. Yet these forms, expressive as they are, do not do justice to Poelzig’s own conceptual sketches. These depict the forms as columns of pure light, sessile supports blooming (or blowing?) up in phalanxes of fire and light.

Yet outside, walking toward the main entrance of the Schauspielhaus … a completely different building. Across the street from this entrance, two neoclassical buildings frame the looming Schauspielhaus in back, for Poelzig’s signature building stands meters above these structures. One may very well sense that the Schauspielhaus is therefore a stage, and moving closer toward that building, one notices its dominant verticality. At grade, an arched Romanesque portico greets opens onto the street. The verticality of the arch supports is replicated in a series of taller, narrower, more numerous arches that stretch upwards, meeting an ever-so-slight gabled form. Yet this gable, and these arches are anything but, for they are more pilaster-like in nature, reliefs lightly hewn into the stereotomic weight of the Schauspielhaus’ façade. This small gabled relief just outwards from another gabled shape restraining a series of arches that are over twice as tall as the smaller arches. And finally, toward the top, this part of the building meets a basilica-like structure running along the spine of the roof axis. And, if for a moment, one were to step back to the point of this perambulation, to that point where the neoclassical structures frame the stage that is the Schauspielhaus’ facades, one could very well be overwhelmed by the successive layering of arched elements – a seemingly-infinite regression of vertical lines extending beyond, and reaching upward.

These inconsistencies – a distinct organic métier in the auditorium, a decidedly classicist formal gesture for the facades – can be linked to Poelzig’s own education. Under the tutelage of Karl Schäfer, Poelzig developed an intense fascination for the structural elements of Renaissance and Gothic architecture. Although his contact with these styles came through the writings of Viollet-le-Duc and Ungewitter, Poelzig cultivated an unusual understanding of the relationship between form and structure.

Poelzig articulated this relationship in a 1906 speech made in Dresden at The Third German Exhibition of Applied Art (Die Dritte Deutsche Kunstgewerbe-Austellung). At that time, Poelzig compared the use of historical cladding (and other historicist elements in architecture) as fermentation. This complex metaphor thus described a situation where an architect would use a historical reference without understanding the cultural genesis of that reference – a process comparable to drinking wine whose age had yet to be appreciated (i.e. unfermented wine). The term also described an era – like the one Poelzig worked in – where historic references were in a process of figurative fermentation.

Again, the issue of cladding held a particular place in Poelzig’s imagination. The indiscriminate and uninformed articulation of surfaces incensed the architect. In 1906, Poelzig thus declared that “a true architecture is not to be achieved with the armoury of decoration, that the problems of modern architecture cannot be mastered by purely external means.” Use of historical (or contemporary) reference for cladding must take into consideration the structural possibilities of glass and steel. A “tectonic solution” must therefore avoid a situation where ” supports remain shapeless and receive merely surface decoration.” Poelzig continues:
We also forget that the utilization of structures from earlier times for a building designed to meet the demands of modern life must be accompanies by an unmistakably modern adaptation of these structures, and that the correct use of materials and construction consciously adapted to purpose produce inner advantages that cannot be replaced by decorative embellishments, however skillfully applied.
However, some critics did not agree that Poelzig put his principles to practice. In 1920, art critic Karl Scheffler (who recommended to Max Reinhardt that Poelzig be hired to design the Schauspielhaus), wrote:
… for here everything from the first to the last is sham. This colossal, solid looking … building is a glittering stage set, a complicated, artistic, architectural mask of plasterboard. All the elements that seem to be growing, to carry, to support and vault are actually being carried, supported, vaulted. The entire mass of the building is suspended on the old iron frame. The whole thing is a web of wire with plaster thrown on it. The plaster has been modeled and then painted with bold colors. Here even the architecture is playacting. This kind of architecture, thrown up like this, has nothing to do with craftsmanship in the good old-fashioned sense of the word.
There was a task, however, for which a similar venture into form and structure would prove beneficial. In 1918, the film director Paul Wegener commissioned Poelzig to design the sets for a third film version of Der Golem (The Golem). Poelzig readily accepted the job – their “shared interests in the mysterious and fantastic” undoubtedly “made the collaboration on The Golem easy and fruitful.” As for the 1920 film, it was Wegener’s third version of the Austrian writer Gustav Meyrink’s 1915 novel of the same name. The novel and the film share very little in terms of story line, with Wegner creating an unusual blend of Jewish mysticism and expressionistic élan. Yet the film has a distinct urban flavor – set in the 16th century it tells the tale of the scrupulous and shrewd Rabbi Löw, the most outspoken of Prague’s Jewish community. In response to a premonition that a terrible disaster would befall Prague’s Jewish population (shortly afterwards, local secular authorities would issue an edict to expel and relocate the city’s Jewish population), Rabbi Löw consults his own circle and they decide to build a Golem, an anthropomorphic clay-hewn monster that will protect the people. However, the monster loses control and begins destroying Prague.

Along with this wife, the sculptor Marlene Moeschke, Poelzig designed a whole city for Wegener’s production of The Golem. The director did not want Poelzig to design a typical Medieval village. Entrusted with design of “buildings, streets, and interiors which were a formal equivalent of the ideas of mystery and the supernatural which underlie the film,” Poelzig created a three-dimensional space, “a concept foreign to motion pictures up to that time … which forced the camera eye to view it obliquely.”

The finished sets thus have an angular, exaggerated feel, a true architecture of playacting. The only sense of verisimilitude that Poelzig deploys is not architectural – yet there is a sense that these structures convey a sense of psychological and spiritual dread. For example, in the opening moments of the film, a group of Rabbinic elders watch the stars, awaiting the fateful premonition that a terrible event will befall Prague’s citizens. On a dark-indigo tint screen, a mysterious constellation of stars hovers above an array of sharp, cragged artichoke-shaped silhouettes. There is no way in which a viewer can get a sense of the size or massing of these crags, but in silhouette, they look like a set of broken, upturned teeth.

Poelzig replicates these angular, pointy motifs in his urban set pieces. In a long shot of a Prague city scene, steep, crooked, cracked gables retreat into the distance, creating a successive layering of light and shadow that only serves to frame and surround the masses of city dwellers in the middle. The triangular shapes are twisted and mangled, inadvertently showing the sections of the individual buildings. This layering of light and shadow is more evident in another frame, this one featuring a set of stairs reaching upwards underneath a large, arched bridge. A closer inspection reveals a complex interplay of surfaces – whereas in the previous scene the houses reveal a type of plaster and wood-beam construction, here, it looks as if the surfaces were hand-cut from stone. The tall, pointed, twisted city gate also combines the elements of light, shadow, and rough surface, creating an undulating structure that spins upward in an angle, coming together at a point that mimics the very same artichoke silhouettes from the night scene. Poelzig also uses these elements in set pieces that emphasize landscape. In one scene, for example, the Golem follows Rabbi Löw across a serpentine, rocky bridge. Far away, beyond the unseen end of the bridge a city’s gnarled and pointed towers and spires rise in the distance. On the side of the bridge, a witness to the curving, malevolent shapes unfurling across the landscape, a stone Madonna holds her own child. The venerated creator and created, mother and child thus gazes on its tragic analogue: a monster following its inattentive creator into an uncertain future.

The Golem
can be interpreted as a tragic tale about the relationship between a creator and the maligned offspring created in its image. And this is not insignificant as different variations of this relationship become more and more evident. For example, there is Paul Wegener himself, who played The Golem in all three films. Here, the creator of the film depicts himself as the errant, uncontrollable creation in the movie. Hans Poelzig’s sets for the film are almost an inverse of this relationship. Poelzig’s own errant, maligned “playacting” architectures (such as the “plaster and wire” Schauspielhaus) find a home within the dark, twisted logic of Wegener’s film.

Saturday, November 25, 2006


If you move beyond the threadbare treatises that inform the discursive practices of architecture, if for a second, you look beyond the Giedions, Scullys, Tafuris, Benevolos, Framptons, and Colquhouns of the world, a constellation of polemic texts becomes readily apparent. These texts, often taking the form of journals and smaller publications like Baudrillard's Utopie, Negri's, Tafuri's, and Asor Rosa's Contropiano, provided an alternative forum for architectural discourse. Although such texts often ranged in their respective scopes of content, they almost tell an alternate, yet concurrent history that is indelibly woven into the skein of architecture history. Any discussion whether these publications merit a microscopic analysis, or whether they are emblematic of what Peter Galison refers to a mesoscopic history is perhaps yet to come ... and that's for a subsequent post.

Students and faculty at the Princeton University School of Architecture have taken the initiative to document the existence and trajectory of a number of such publications in an exhibit called Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X-197X, at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, 97 Kenmare Street, New York, NY 10012, from November 14, 2006 - January 31, 2007. The exhibit is temporally bounded, focusing on publications in the 1960s and 1970s, yet this proved to be a rather fertile time for alternative (or anti-modern) architectural discussions.

Perhaps the best summary is offered by the Storefront for Art and Architecture itself:

An explosion of architectural little magazines in the 1960s and 1970s instigated a radical transformation in architectural culture with the architecture of the magazines acting as the site of innovation and debate. Clip/Stamp/Fold: The Radical Architecture of Little Magazines 196X – 197X takes stock of seventy little magazines from this period, which were published in over a dozen cities. Coined in the early twentieth century to designate progressive literary journals, the term “little magazine” was remobilized during the 1960s to grapple with the contemporary proliferation of independent architectural periodicals. The terms “little” and “magazine” are not taken at face value. In addition to short-lived radical magazines, Clip/Stamp/Fold includes pamphlets and building instruction manuals along with professional magazines that experienced “moments of littleness,” influenced by the graphics and intellectual concerns of their self-published contemporaries.

The exhibition's annotated timeline serves as a cross-section, tracking the progression, upheavals, and transformations of the magazines. A selection of original magazines surveys the variety of unique formats, re-introducing rare examples from private collections, and is supplemented by complete facsimiles for visitors to browse. Audio interviews with editors and designers of these publications punctuate the room, with transcriptions appearing in the Storefront's newsletter. In addition, many of these editors and designers have been invited to respond to the exhibition through the series Little Magazines / Small Talks held at the gallery. An implicit aim of the exhibition is to invite reflection on contemporary uses of media in architecture. Assembling all these remarkable documents for the first time offers a unique view of a key period of architectural innovation and challenges today's architects to provoke a similar intensity.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Community Center for Newton Aycliffe: James Stirling's Thesis Project at the University of Liverpool School of Architecture (1950)

"Digging through the archives at the Stirling office, I came upon the original copy of his 1950 student thesis -- a community center. Stylistically, it falls somewhere between the Royal Festival Hall and Le Corbusier's Marseilles Block. Both had set powerful directions for European architecture at that time. But he doesn't let it go at that. There are peculiar, pointed exceptions to the prototypes.

"Like Marseilles, Stirling's thesis includes a roof-garden with mechanical equipment designed to function as roof furniture. But he rips off the sculptural disguise adopted by Le Corbusier, and fantasizes about the dynamic qualities of the exhaust stack, positioning his by now characteristic wind vane atop the building and strutting out the whole affair with guy wires like the equipment it is, rather than treating it as an abstract sculptural form.

"The building is also on pilotis, like Marseilles, but the planning reasserts connections to the ground in a manner Le Corbusier strenuously avoided, by the creation of a lounge-coffeeshop at the interface.

"Finally, like the Festival Hall, there is a sense of veneer, of the building as a thin container. But where Festival Hall's formal composition is gratuitous and ingratiating, the community center becomes airplane-like, with cross-braced wires and modular panels emphasizing the structural rigor of the design. No concessions whatever are made to the paunchy conventions of 'civilized' postwar Britain. It is, over all, an abrupt, rhetorical reply to the signal prototypes after the war. It says, 'I'm not having any,' without so much as a thank you.”

From Craig Hodgetts, “Inside Jim Stirling” Design Issues 100 (1976), quoted in Robert Maxwell, ed. James Stirling/Michael Wilford (Birkhauser 1999).

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Projection Reference Relief

Back on the blog detail ... Harvard History of Science/Architecture PhD Bill Rankin has created a truly excellent projection reference table. Although Rankin claims that this is a "cheat sheet" that allows him to see what types of projections he can mine from ESRI's otherwise clunky GIS, this table contains excellent comparison diagrams. You can see exactly how the projections look compared to each other. Not only that, but the table is organized according to three types of maps (and their corresponding projections): wall maps, continental maps, and regional maps. This is an excellent resource for spatial analysts everywhere.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Actor-Network Vocabulary

From Madeline Akrich and Bruno Latour, "A Summary of a Convenient Vocabulary for the Semiotics of Human and Nonhuman Assemblies" in Wiebe E. Bijker and John Law, eds. Shaping Technology, Building Society: Studies in Sociotechnical Change (Cambridge: MIT, 1992): 259-264.

Script, Description, Inscription, or Transcription
Shifting Out, Shifting In
Program of Actions
Prescription; Proscription; Affordances; Allowances
Subscription or the Opposite, De-Inscription
Interface or Plugs
Redistributing Competences and Performances of Actors in a Setting
Scribe, Enscripter, Scripter, Desginer, or Author
AND (syntagmatic, association, alliances); OR (paradigmatic, substitution, translation)

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Optical Events

These two images, put side by side, imply many things. Such implications go well beyond the fact that both use images to make a point about the state of a then-current war; that both a Norden Bomsight in operation. The manipulation of images here suggest implications for home living -- for the operative scale of what is at "stake" is rather broad -- from the single home, to a metropolitan region, to a nascent country.

The suggestions can be literal. For example, the Nash Kelvinator ad (left) makes clear references to domestic living. The connection between the sighting a target through the bomsight and preserving American homes is all-too-palpable.

The implications are also figural. The second image (right), from Ha-milhamah le-shalom [Our war for peace], ed. Mahadurat Yediot Aharonot (Tel Aviv: Dekel, 1967) has more obvious political implications. In this instance, the sighting a target with a bombsight implies the protection and preservation of the still-young Israel.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Object Lesson(s)

We love Bruno Latour. We love his books. In fact, his books are even better once we get to hear him speak. They read like the transcript of an intellectually-engaging conversation, yet his writing is never onerous, nor is it turgid. It is what it is. There is something rather public and almost ecumenical about his writings. Yes, he often writes about science and technology, but books like We Have Never Been Modern (1993) and Science in Action (1988) transcend their discipline. There is something -- as I already said -- democratic about his work. There's something for every one.

And this notion of democracy is, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, "the brooding omnipresence" that sifts through the pages of Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (2005). The book is literally hefty and figuratively weighty -- it is the monograph to an exhibition of the same name held at the ZKM (Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie) in Karlsruhe, Germany. It is a heroic compendium spanning a seemingly impossible breadth of thought: from political philosophy to history of science to digital art to speculative architecture.

But, as Latour states in the introduction to the work, the book/exhibit is about the creation of an object-oriented democracy. Latour realizes the incipient double-meaning of the word representation: it not only has a political aspect (elected officials represent the public) but an unmitigated sense of veracity or verisimilitude (this chart represents a summary of our findings). The former thus talks of a matter of fact, the latter talks of representation as a matter of concern.

And they key to Latour's object-oriented democracy rests in mending this schism between representation as matter of fact and representation as matter of concern. He thus advocates moving from a Realpolitik to a Dingpolitik -- literally, a politics of things, an investigation into the significance of the tangible thing. It is as if a thing -- a glass, a video game cartridge, a cookie, or radar screen -- becomes the prism through which the world refracts itself. Dingpolitik mandates a shifting of focus from objects to things. "Back to Things!" is Latour's clarion call:
...the objects of science and technology, the aisles of supermarkets, financial institutions, medical establishments, computer networks -- even the catwalks of fashion shows! --- offer poignant examples of hybrid forums and agoras, of the gatherings that have been eating away at the older realm of pure objects bathing in the clear light of the modernist gaze. Who could dream of a better example of hybrid forums than the scale models used by architects all over the world to assemble those able to build them at scale? Or the thin felt pen used by draughtsmen toimaginen new landscapes? When we say "Public matters!" or "Back to Things!" we are not trying to go back to the old materialism of Realpolitik, because matter itself is up for grabs as well. To be materialist now implies that one enters a labyrinth more intricate than that built by Daedalus (Latour, "From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public," in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (MIT/ZKM, 200): 23-24.
So here, a new, urgent klaxon demanding a reexamination of materialism and material culture. We only need to recall Wallace Stevens' elevation of the simple jar, the complex interweavings between subject, object, and context in "Anecdote of The Jar" (1923):

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

The thing is given urgency -- it is not only created, but it orders its surrounding space. In the words of critic Donald Guitierrez:

Being placed on top of a hill gives the jar an apex of human purpose through nature. But the jar asserts authority even more through the implied design of its own rotundity. It is the design of a created object embodying a human, cultural purpose. Further, the roundness is the symbolic design of purpose placed in nature, which in itself lacks purpose or order. The jar's roundness, exerting a centripetal force on the "slovenly wilderness," endows the wilderness (including the hill) with the order of a center. All the natural disorderliness of the wilderness acquires a purposive spatial character through "centering," and is given a figurative order in the way "rounded" and rounding human purpose shapes significance into the raw matter of earthly phenomena. Accordingly, human circularity, human centralization, civilizes "wilderness," not only the wild, that is, but chaos, nullity, meaninglessness, by providing it structure. This governing force is so powerful that even in its plainest, simplest representations ("grey and bare") the jar compels a "surrounding." "Circular Art: Round Poems of Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams." Concerning Poetry 14:1 (Spring 1981).

Philip K. Dick's alternate history masterpiece, The Man in The High Castle (1962) operates in the same realm as as Bruno Latour or a Wallace Stevens. The plot of the novel is familiar, only in that it has spawned similar alternate histories or science fictions: the United States has lost the Second World War; the Eastern seaboard is occupied by Germany, the West Coast by Japan, etc. As it turns out, several of the main characters in the novel traffic pre-World War II Americana, everything including Colt revolvers, Mickey Mouse Watches, Civil War-era Banknotes. These items are counterfeited, a fact that seems inconsequential. Consumers trade these high-priced items, and as long as someone can say that they are authentic, the market remains stable.

The author then considers Frank Frink's jewelry. An expert in manufacturing counterfeit firearms, Frink labors in his basement studios producing handcrafted earrings, lapel pins, and brooches. When presented to local pawners, the jewelry is ignored, unworthy of any market value. But, in the political climate of Dick's novel, where Japanese citizens consult the I Ching on a daily basis to soothe existential concerns and where Nazi forces carry out genocidal experiments in Africa in furtherance of a political mandate, this jewelry offers a new hope -- a salvation borne out of a simple, handcrafted item. Describing an transaction involving a seemingly worthless earring crafted by Frink, Dick writes:
"To have no historicity, and also no artistic, esthetic worth, and yet to partake of some ethereal value -- that is a marvel. Just precisely because this is a miserable, small,worthlesss-looking blob; that, Robert, contributes to its possessing wu. For it is a fact that wu is customarily found in least imposing places, as in the Christian aphorism, 'stones rejected by the builder.' One experiences awareness of wu in such trash as an old stick, or a rusty beer can by the side of the road. However, in those cases, the wu is within the viewer. Here, an artificer has put wu into the object, rather than merely witnessed the wu inherent in it." He glanced up. "Am I making myself clear?"
"Yes," Childan said.
"In other words, an entire new world is pointed to, by this. The name for it is neither art, for it has no form, nor religion. What is it? I have pondered this pin unceasingly, yet cannotfathomm it. We evidently lack a word for an object like this. So you are right, Robert. It is authentically a new thing on the face of the world ... This subject carries authority which compels an abandonment of property, so great is the necessity of delivering theawarenesss itself." (1962: 176-77).
As with Stevens' seemingly worthless Tennessee jar, Dick's wu-laden earring pin may also mark a transition from Realpolitik to Dingpolitik. The earring represents a literal and figural matter of concern.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Jumbo Jet, Connected

Leave it to the impossibly strange yet fantastically compelling historian of media technology Friedrich A. Kittler to describe what, in his opinion, was the most mediated technology ever: the Jumbo Jet. In "Gramophone, Film, Typewriter" October 41 (Summer 1987): 101-118, which is perhaps either an encapsulation or segment from his book of the same title, Kittler attempts to write a history of technology, a history that is not authored by people, but by the technologies themselves.

Musing about commerical aviation, Kittler writes:
But right now there are still media; there is still entertainment. One is informed -- mainly, unfortunately, thanks to jumbo jets. In the jumbo jet, media are more densely connected than in most places. They remain separate, however, according to their technological standard, frequency, user allocation, and interface. The crew is connected to radar screens, diode displays, radio beacons, and nonpublic channels. The crew members have deserved their professional earphones. Their replacement by computers is only a question of time. But the passengers can benefit only from yesterday's technology and are entertained by a canned media mixture. With the exception of books, that ancient medium which needs so much light, all the entertainment techniques are represented. The passengers' ears are listlessly hooked up to one-way earphones, which are themselves hooked up to tape recorders and thereby to the record industry. their eyes are glued to Hollywood movies, which in turn must be connected to the advertising budget of the airline industry -- otherwise they would not so regularly begin with takeoffs and landings. Not to mention the technological medium of the food industry to wchich the mouths of passengers are connected. A multi-media embryonic sack supplied through channels or navels that all serve the purpose of screening out the real background: noise, night, and the cold of an unliveable outside. Against that there is muzak, movies, and microwave cuisine.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Policing The Spectrum

This, a great image of an autobahn simulator near Nurnberg used to train German police in high-speed road-handling.

From National Geographic Channel.

This Business of Dredging

Did anyone catch the latest epsidoe of Megastructures on the National Geographic Channel, the one about the Port of Rotterdam? Well, before this post divulges one of the many goodies about this particular episode, the port is something to behold. According the the Port of Rotterdam, 370 million tons of goods moved through the North Sea port in 2005. Furthermore,
The port of Rotterdam stretches out for 40 kilometers along the Nieuwe Waterweg canal (also see the Port map). The port and industrial area covers 10,500 hectares. Around 30,000 seagoing vessels and 130,000 inland vessels call at the port each year. Rotterdam is a port of call for around 500 shipping lines that maintain regular services to about 1,000 other ports. Rotterdam is Europe's most important port for oil & chemicals, containers, iron ore, coal, food and metals.

And another thing, the entrance to the port is 78 feet deep. Ornidarily, this would not present any problems to the world's container fleet. But it does present a problem to one specific vessel, the Norwegian container vessel, the MS Berge Stahl.

The Berge Stahl is a monster of a vessel. Besides being about 375 yards in length, it is also has one of the deepest draughts imaginable for a vessel: 75 feet. And only two ports in the world are capable of handling such a giant vessel: the Europort at Rotterdam and the Terminal Maritimo de Ponta da Madeira, in Itaqui, Maranhao, Brazil. When ever the Berge Stahl enters either of these ports, the repsective harbormasters deploy a fleet of dredgers, large ships that literally suck the ocean bottom into their hulls, thereby creating a deeper channel for larger ships.

A great recent posting from Pruned shows these dredging vessels in action. The majority of these vessels are owned by either Van Ord, Boskalis, Jan de Nul Group, and Dredging International, all Dutch or Belgian (read: experts in North Sea reclamation). Two of the largest trailer suction hopper dredgers (or TSHD) are Jan de Nul Group's Vasco da Gama and Boskalis' WD Fairway. Combined, these two vessels have the ability to displace a total volume of about 69,000 cubic meters.

From Pruned.

The DPRK Military, Courtesy of Google Earth

The ever-growing Google Earth community has been busy scouring North Korea for glimpses at military installations. And according to a recent posting on Radio Open Source, maps have been grafted onto Google Earth, resulting in a fairly comprehensive listing of North Korean military sites that can be viewed using the Google app. The imaage at the far left, for example, is an aerial view of the sub base at Pipa Got. The image on the right is an unidentified North Korean air base. If you have already downloaded Google Earth, you can download the keyhole files for other DPRK installations, such as the Musudan-ri/No Dong missile test range, and the Cho Do naval base.

From Radio Open Source.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Radome Designs for Aircraft at MIT

Much has been written about the role of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) as well as the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) during the Second World War. One of the NRDC's most famous ventures was the establishment of the MIT Radiation Laboratory (or RadLab) in October 1940. Under the tutelage of Lee A. DuBridge, RadLab scientists engaged in various experiments concerning signal processing, as well as for the design and implementation of radar systems. A spinoff of this research, the Research Laboratory for Electronics, became known for sponsoring Norbert Wiener's experiments on control and communication, the subject of his most famous book, Cybernetics.

At the end of World War II, the RadLab published the 28-volume MIT Radiation Laboratory Series (1947-1953). Perhaps the most famous book to come out of the series (and known for being a predecessor to Wiener's Cybernetics) is Hubert M. James, Nathaniel Nichols', and Ralph Phillips' Theory of Servomechanisms (1947). However, for those of use who are more aviation-inclined, Willoughby Cady's, Michael Karelitz', and Louis Turner's Radar Scanners and Radomes (1948), is interesting.

As the image from Cady's book at the top of this post shows, radar systems were first conceived as a way to locate a target on the enemy lanscape. A conical high-frequency beacon emanates at an angle from the aircraft's fuselage, allowing radar operators to detect what was on the ground. The U.S. Army Air Force's principal radar systems were the AN/APQ and AN/APS-7 (or "Eagle").

The AN/APQ series were classified as BTO (“Bombing Through Overcast”) systems that enabled bombardiers to drop bombs through dense cloud cover or under cover of night at high altitudes. A 1945 edition of the Radar Observers’ Bombardment Information File (ROBIF) describes the AN/APQ and AN/APS series’ function, giving a classic description of how radar operates:
In brief, the system functions as follows: A train of extremely short but intense pulses of radio-frequency energy is transmitted in a beam from a rotating antenna. An object in the path of the beam reflects some of the energy, and the transmitting antenna intercepts a portion of this reflected energy. The received pulses, or echoes, are detected and amplified on the plan position indicator (PPI scope), where you can determine both the distance to, and the bearing of, the object.

The AN/APS-7 (or “Eagle”) radar was used in conjunction with a Norden M-9 Bombsight for even increased accuracy. The Eagle’s rangefinder system was electronically attached to the Norden Bombsight’s viewfinder, in essence creating a system where the radar system would automatically input standard bombsight range and drift data. The bombardier was essentially demoted. Instead of being the custodian of an awesome weapon, he became a static “radar observer.” The combined Eagle-Norden system, renamed as the Norden Optical Sight Modification system, or NOSMO, would allow accurate bombing from 30,000 to 35,000 feet. Although Norden bombsights were still used for daylight and clear weather missions, NOSMO would eventually be scrapped in favor of wholly electronic systems.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Thelon River Blues

On the impossibly cold morning of August 8, 1929, Sergeant C. Trundle, an Inspector for the Great Slave Lake Region of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, reported a grisly scene inside a rundown cabin on the banks of the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories. Trundle's affidavit describes the discovery of the skeletal remains of three explorers, all Englishmen. One skeleton was that of John Hornby, whose unpublished manuscript, In The Land of Feast and famine by J. Hornby, or a Life in the Arctic Region, was found alongside his body. Hornby was a seasoned explorer who frequented the Thelon area. Wanting to attract attention to the unspoiled natural beauty of the Thelon River, Hornby embarked on another expedition in early 1927, hoping to prove that he could live in the desolate, wilderness of the area subsisting only on Caribou meat and whatever other game he could procure. Hornby starved to death on April 14, 1927. Next to Hornby's corpse, Sergeant Trundle found the body of Harold Allard, who died only a couple of weeks later, on May 4 1927. The third set of remains belonged to Edgar Christian, a 19-year old amateur explorer.

When RCMP scouts first discovered the old hut by the Thelon, at first they did not notice the bodies. They entered in and noticed a handwritten note affixed to the stove, with four words written in a desperate, almost childish scrawl:
Who ... Look ... In ... Stove

Inside the stove was Edgar Christian's logbook, which presented a day-to-day account of the deadly winter of 1927. There have been different accounts of the story, all suggesting a tragic scene. On the morning of June 1, 1927, Edgar Christian finished his last diary entry, and placed it alongside a note to his mother and father in the ashes of the stove. After writing the note asking whoever discovered their remains to look inside the stove, he crawled inside his red Hudson Bay's blanket and died. Edgar Christian's last diary entry is cryptic, yet somewhat telling:
9 a.m. Weaker than ever. Have eaten all I can. Have food on hand but heart peatering? Sunshine is bright now. See if that does any good to me if I get out and bring in wood to make fire.
Make preparations now.Got out, too weak and all in now. Left things late.

Christian began writing these daily entries in October 1926, before he embarked on the trek with Hornby and Allard. His clipped, pithy style is matter-of-fact, as if he were protecting future readers from the grisly details of starvation. Death was a lonely and personal business, and he only wanted to present a bare minimum of details. Christian also depicts the barren, frozen steppes of the upper Northwest Territories, where gale-force winds and winter temperatures averaging somewhere south of -20 degrees Fahrenheit made exploration a hazardous business indeed. The Thelon River area that Hornby, Allard, and Christian explored in 1926 and 1927 was then terra incognita. Hornby made regular visits to the area, and his growing love for the fecund yet bare Thelon area no doubt inspired Allard and Christian to go along on this last, deadly jaunt.

One morning, almost 50 years later, a group of American and Canadian campers were pitching tents at Warden's Grove, near the Thelon River. Newspaper accounts indicate that Gary Anderson, 30, of Rock Island, Ill.; Chris Norment, 26, of Las Vegas; Kurt Mitchell, 28, of Jackson, Wyo.; John Mordhorst, 28, of Rock Island; Michael Mobley, 26, of Mesa, Ariz., and Robert Common, 33, of St. Anne de Bellevue, Canada were keen outdoorsmen, sharing John Hornby's love for the Thelon wilderness, and recreating the explorer's last, and most famous expedition.

On the morning of January 24, 1978, one of these men noticed a white blazing object streaking across the sky, spewing fiery bits in its wake. Mobley and Mordhorst ventured to the impact site, and on the way, noticed smoldering pieces of metal wreckage. These, however, were actually parts of wreckage from COSMOS 954, a Soviet Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT). COSMOS 954 had a relatively short life span. Launched on September 18, 1977 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhistan, COSMOS 954 featured the latest in Soviet nuclear reactor technology: a Romashka-type reactor carrying a Uranium-235 core. The satellite was designed to monitor naval activity in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in January 1978, reports began to surface that COSMOS 954's orbit was beginning to decay. And to make matters worse, the Soviet Space Agency was unable to jettison the satellite's reactor core due to a mechanical malfunction.

During a brief diplomatic spat between the U.S. and Soviet governments, it had been generally accepted that COSMOS 954 would reenter the Earth's atmosphere with it reactor core. This would be an unprecedented type of nuclear disaster -- an airborne, upper-atmospheric release of radioactive debris. There was even speculation that the satellite would crash in India. But it wasn't until January 24th that anyone had any inclination as to where COSMOS 954 would crash. Early that morning, the satellite entered the Earth's atmosphere somewhere over the Queen Charlotte Islands (north of Vancouver), and tumbled in a northeastern direction across Great Slave Lake, Fort Resolution, Yellowknife, Fort Reliance, and finally towards Baker Lake.

After the Soviet government admitted that COSMOS 954 indeed had a nuclear reactor on board, a cleanup operation was commenced by the U.S. and Canadian. Dubbed Operation Morning Light, the cleanup effort not only involved the on-site recovery of radioactive debris, but also utilized spectrometer-equipped Royal Canadian Air Force as well as high-altitude missions by U2 spyplanes.

The clean up effort ended in April 1978. By that time, crews assigned to Operation Morning Light surveyed over 124,000 square kilometers and logged over 4500 hours of flying time, all in search for pieces of the doomed COSMOS 954. In the end, it was determined that the Romashka reactor and its contents burned up in the atmosphere, and that the pieces strewn along the hoarfrost posed very little danger. The most radiologically intense piece, about the size of a nickel, was found on February 23 and appropriately sent to the Whiteshell Nuclear Research Establishment in Pinawa, Manitoba.

What strikes me as interesting about these two narratives is how they both end in the same location. Also, the very first piece of wreckage found by the American and Canadian campers in 1978, with two bent metal rods splaying out in opposite directions, even looked like a pair of Caribou antlers that John Hornsby would have loved to have seen in the deadly winter of 1927-1928. The newspaper accounts even describe them as "antlers." And finally, the satellite crash, how it must have looked like a falling star on that cold January morning, and the terrible, sad ending to Edgar Christian's Thelon adventure ... it reminds me of the last lines of W.H. Auden's "Musee des Beaux Arts"(1940):
In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

From Yoknapatawpha to Canady: Imaginary Cartographies in Fiction

I have an affinity for maps of nonexistent places. I'll admit up front that one of the things that drew me to William Faulkner's novels is that they took place in Yoknapatawpha County in Mississippi. In fact, there is even a map. You can trace your finger along the roads and rivulets of this phantom county, seeing where the Bundren family lived in As I Lay Dying (1930), or where Joe Christmas committed a murder in Light in August (1932). The fact that these events take place, that these characters stalk locations that are suspended somewhere between fact and reality perhaps give the novels added dramatic quality. But Faulkner's imaginaty geographies are not limited to Mississippi. Pylon (1935) may very well be his most flawed novel -- a tale of veteran war pilots who test their skills in air races, often dying at the throes of a dangerous new technology in a town called New Valois. In reading the decadent, sometimes violent passages describing New Valois, one wonders if this is really Faulkner's own private New Orleans.

Vladimir Nabokov's bloated masterpiece, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969) opens with an amazing cartographic conceit. The various cities, geographical regions are an offbeat mix of the Russian and North American. For example, "Canady" is the country that borders the United States. Nabokov has even invented the state of "New Cheshire" -- according to Brian Boyd's meticulous annotations to the Vintage Edition of the novel:
... since the New England state of New Hampshire echoes the English county of Hampshire, and New York the English city and county of York, since American names in fact were frequently duplicated "across the ha-ha of a doubled ocean" (18.01), Nabokov invents the state of New Cheshire, in honor of the English county of Cheshire but perhaps also, with a grin at Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, in honor of New York's Catskill Mountains (cf. Appel, Ada 167). There is also a Cheshire County in New Hampshire, less than fifteen miles from West Wardsboro, Vermont, where Nabokov spent two summers (1940 and 1942).

The imaginary therefore is rooted on the personal. But the imaginary is also historical. Take Nabokov's invocation of the Durmanov clan's origins in New Estoty. According to Boyd:
Estotiland was a name given by early explorers to the northeastern part of North America, now northeast Labrador. Old mapmakers let it stretch as far north as their conjectured coastline ventured. Cf. John Milton, Paradise Lost, X.686: "From cold Estotiland." "Estotiland" is listed, along with Eden and Arcadia, under the heading "utopia, paradise, heaven, heaven on earth" in Roget's International Thesaurus (New York: Crowell, 1962). "'Russian' Estoty" may contain an echo of "Russian" Estonia.
The idea that a novel has a specific geography is alluring. But when the geography is conjured, fantastic, or rooted in the esoteric or weird -- that is truly inspiring.