Thursday, March 30, 2006

Clean Air Bombs

Well, we may be getting closer to the tree bombs, the green grenades, bomb-eating mushies, throw in some Edenfern™, and what we have now is some nitrotetrazole (studied for the past few decades as a next-generation explosive): a primary explosive agent that is supposedly much friendlier to the environment. As reported in this New Scientist article, these green bombs would alleviate the hazardous pollution plumes that are caused by current "lead-based primary explosives that are used to detonate everything from blasting caps to ballistic missiles."

My Hang Huynh is an explosives expert at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico who is engineering the green explosives, and believes this has tremendous potential to mitigate fallout dangers of various types of explosions, not just those used in war. "Primary explosives are the relatively weak yet highly sensitive materials used to set off powerful explosions," the article explains. "Lead-based chemicals came into use for this purpose one hundred years ago to replace the even more toxic mercury fulminate."
But what if bombs could actually be used to fight pollution, kill smog, clean up the air? Strategic parts of the city could be turned into air freshner bombing ranges. People would actually want to live next to them. Mushroom clouds would become signs of healthier neighborhoods. Farmers would gravitate to the craters. Cruise missiles as the agents of re-oxygenation; weapons as city lungs. And so, the evolution of the bomb goes on....

Classic Shelter

In light of One Small Project, I thought I'd post this. By now, you're probably familiar with that little refugee shack that housed many weary San Franciscans after the 1906 earthquake in large encampments, while some of the plywood homes were dispersed through out different neighborhoods. 5,610 of them were originally built, most have been demolished, though, some others still remain unedetected today.

John King writes for the SF Chron, "The charge was $2 per month per shack; for $12 to $25 the shack could be moved to private property as families resettled their land. By the summer of 1908, the refugee camps were history and shacks were scattered across the landscape."
One of the surviving shacks, however, is on display downtown as part of the 1906 Great Earthquake & Fire Expo 2006, which will also accompany a larger and quite fascinating event coming up in a couple of weeks, the 100th Anniversary Earthquake Conference.
I hope the public stops for a moment and considers the significance of the shack. Millions are dying homeless around the world and would kill for that one shelter alone. And, maybe the American public should keep the notion of refugee camps and disaster shelters a little more fresh in their minds, becuase the next century is certainly looking like it is going to be one hell of a ride.
We may all, if we're lucky enough, be living in one of those anitiquated disaster shelters one day, so be prepared and show your support now.

[Images snagged from this SF Chron article, March 30,2006]

Also see: Habitat for the Homeless | Katrina Cottage

Monday, March 27, 2006

Wes Janz Interview

[Life in the gecekondus, Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Amal Cavender (2005).]

Part of what's so fascinating for me about a "squatter urbanism" is the sheer ingenuity and human spirit that allows people to reclaim what might be deemed urban dead space - or, as Wes Janz sees it, "leftover space."

"The leftover is a potent category" he says. It is a place where "someone or something typically seen as worthless can be understood simultaneously to be worthwhile. "I like this shifted perspective. Is a “slum” a place of poverty and pain, as well as a place of vibrancy and life? What will the self-builder teach me, an architect? Am I the homeless one? Have I lost my way?"

[This man lives in a bus shelter in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Photo by Wes Janz (2006).]

Wes is an architectural educator and is currently working on a book, One Small Project, which wants to help reclaim the narrative of leftover people from the typical media driven perceptions which generally depict squatter settlements, homeless encampments, and shanty towns as human trash, urban scourge, disease.

[FEMA trailers en route to the gulf coast, Muncie, Indiana. Photo by Wes Janz (2006).]

I recently wrote an interview with him for Archinect about his students' relief efforts in Sri Lanka, the devastation of the American south, building trust with communities by building to learn, he says. "I’m less and less interested in affecting someone else’s life, in being an agent of change. More and more, I’m interested in being changed and in preparing myself to be an effective respondent."

[Digging house foundations in Kalametiya, Sri Lanka, through the CapAsia student field study program. "As important, if not more so, “building to learn” refers to learning about one’s self in relation to the “other,” rethinking one’s place in the world, and questioning, fundamentally, how one chooses to engage the world and its people first as a fellow human being, then as architect, planner, or designer." Photo Wes Janz (2005).]

From disaster landscapes to urban dumpsters, timber pallete homes to scrap compiler "parts kits", skip around and scavege some bits and pieces of the interview, there is a lot to investigate including a diverse bunch of resources exploring the culture of urban leftovers all over the world.

[Bay St. Louis, Mississippi four months after Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Wes Janz (2005).]

It is amazing, nearly 2 billion people are not only hacking it in some of the worst living conditions found in the world today, but in some cases these communities are shaming the developed world with their resourcefulness and respect for material and space.
Ultimately, what do we stand to learn from them, about how to remake urban space out of raw city scraps, salvaged bldg-body parts, ruined pastures and topographies of waste; the architectural ingenuity of inhabited sidewalks, maximized real estate down by the riverbeds, an oceanic economy of lost goods sifting in and out of the railroad stations, making do at the border -- squatting is the ultimate political act -- this grand backlash to the exploits of corporate militarism and fortress consumerism; innovating their own ecologies; squatter urbanism as a phase of post-capitalist landscape bioremediation; a bottom-feeders's era of re-engineerng the global economy.
Or, well, whatever, check out the interview in full here, Wes brings it all back down to earth.

Peripheral Milit_Urb 3

Magical Urbanism: Shifts: Fortress Cape Town (pt 2)

"Thus, in the theoretical sense, we can understand Cape Town as being essentially two cities. One, a globalized, high tech center of corporate power, a playground for wealthy tourists, full of air-conditioned shopping malls, waterfront developments, world class beaches, and tourist attractions. Tourism creates strange priorities, as the city spends more on its gorgeous parks, a beacon for European, Australian, and American tourists, than it does on health care and education combined. This is in a country where fully one-third of the present population of 15 year-olds are slated to die in what Nelson Mandela calls the ‘New Struggle:’ AIDS. Privatization plays a key role in this city, as certain qualities of life are available to only those who can afford it. One of these qualities is most certainly physical safety. There has been a virtual boom in the development of the private security firm, evidenced by the proliferation of high walls, security systems, barb wires, electric fences, and, trying to maintain a friendly appearance, spikes disguised as ivy. This fear is driven by the stark reality of violence in Cape Town, emanating from the black and coloured townships sitting on the city’s edge. The perception of whites is that violence is a symptom of race, and not, much more accurately, a symptom of poverty. This is fortress Cape Town." - Magical Urbanism (Read Pt. 1 here)

Kurds take out anger on Halabja monument

"On 16 March every year since 1988, Kurds have gathered in the northern Iraqi town of Halabja to commemorate one of the worst atrocities of Saddam Hussein's regime: the gassing of some 5,000 of the town's residents. [...] But this year, the monument became a symbol for something else - the anger of local people at what they perceive to be corruption and neglect." - BBC (via)

New Naval Training Building Transforms Recruits Into Sailors

"Quietly rising under the radar and chaff of today’s starchitects and signature structures is a revolutionary ship-shaped building within a building that marks the beginning of a new genre of naval military training. Built around technology, theatrics and special effects, the project is the product of imaginative teamwork." - ENR (via)

Contractors Muddle On While Iraq Slips Close to Civil War

"Three years after the invasion of Iraq, some $8 billion has been spent on reconstruction and contractors have started 2,773 projects through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Project and Contracting Office in Baghdad, out of 3,047 planned. Although 2,144 are complete, most goals that were put up at the beginning of the reconstruction program are a long way from being met." - ENR (via)

U.S. Hiring Hong Kong Co. to Scan Nukes

"In the aftermath of the Dubai ports dispute, the Bush administration is hiring a Hong Kong conglomerate to help detect nuclear materials inside cargo passing through the Bahamas to the United States and elsewhere." - AP (via)

New US transit machines could detect explosives

"Hoping to thwart a potential attack on American subways similar to the London public transit bombings last July, the U.S government is testing ticketing machines that would detect traces of explosives on the fingers of someone buying a subway ticket." - Yahoo News

Airport Passenger Screening

"It seems like every time someone tests airport security, airport security fails. In tests between November 2001 and February 2002, screeners missed 70 percent of knives, 30 percent of guns and 60 percent of (fake) bombs. And recently (see also this), testers were able to smuggle bomb-making parts through airport security in 21 of 21 attempts. It makes you wonder why we're all putting our laptops in a separate bin and taking off our shoes. (Although we should all be glad that Richard Reid wasn't the "underwear bomber.")" - Schneier on Security

[Image: Canada : Saskatchewan, Confluence]

Sen. Leahy Gets Canadian Border Fence Idea Scrapped

"The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has eliminated what U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont called a "cockamamie" plan to consider building a fence or wall along the U.S.-Canadian border. "All a fence does is alienate the best neighbor the United States has," he added." - CR

Friday, March 24, 2006

S.W.A.T. Nation

Is the United States relying too heavily on SWAT teams to police its streets? Has the use of these military-style squads raised the number of police shootings, or actually helped to bring them down? Is SWAT just another example of how our municipal law enforcement agencies are becoming increasingly more militarized?

Professor Peter Kraska, an expert on police militarisation from Eastern Kentucky University, produced a report back in '97 on the subject, and cites some interesting stats that chart the rise of SWAT in the last 20 years. For instance, in the 1980s there were about 3,000 SWAT team deployments annually across the US, but he says now there are at least 40,000 per year.

Daniel Engber refers to Kraska in this article for Slate, when he writes that "In SWAT units formed since 1980, their use has increased by 538 percent. By the mid-1990s, more than 80 percent of American cities had active teams, as did more than half of all law enforcement agencies in the country with more than 50 officers. (There are even SWAT teams for the U.S. National Park Service and for one of the subway systems in the Bay Area.)"

Apparently, no single square inch of public space should be deprived of having its very own "Special Weapons and Tactics" team. SWAT on the bus, SWAT in the mall, in the library, SWAT-recruiters at school, SWAT on your way to work, in the grocery store, etc. Chat with the SWAT before you go into to see their movie. Isn't SWAT really just one big advertisement for the military? Doesn't their presence just feed the culture of fear? Actually, doens't SWAT omnipresence interfere with community policing efforts which have developed close ties to residents over years and years of time?

All you need to do is flip on the tube: Dallas SWAT the docudrama, Texas SWAT the soap opera, SWAT the movie, SWAT the game, SWAT the lifestyle. It's all one big advertisement to get you to buy in to a culture of security, a culture which boasts an overwhelming deployable police force that is as capable of responding to American streets all the same it is anywhere else in the world. A complete cultural militarization of all future cities. Urban design as the ultimate SWAT playground. SWAT are the poster children of a U.S. military urbanism. Rummy's home front heroes in the war on terror.

Bradford Plumer reminds us that many of these units have been trained by the military and armed by the Defense Department, as part of Reagan's "war on drugs" campaign which has created a legacy of a hyper-involved military in domestic law enforcement. With all the needed policy backing to boot. The 1981 Congressional amendment to the Posse Comitatus Act authorized the military to "assist" civilian police in the enforcement of drug laws. In 1999 there was the CATO Institute Report, which documents a frightening history of the explosion of paramilitarism in American police departments:

Between 1995 and 1997 the Department of Defense gave police departments 1.2 million pieces of military hardware, including 73 grenade launchers and 112 armored personnel carriers. The Los Angeles Police Department has acquired 600 Army surplus M-16s….

Kraska adds to this, "Of 459 SWAT teams across the country, 46 percent acquired their initial training from 'police officers with special operations experience in the military,' and 43 percent with 'active-duty military experts in special operations.' Almost 46 percent currently conducted training exercises with 'active-duty military experts in special operations.'… Because of their close collaboration with the military, SWAT units are taking on the warrior mentality of our military's special forces."

He also goes on to mention that while these units are meant to assist the local police force under certain conditions where a SWAT team is needed only as a last option, these units are actually now being deployed as full-time roaming patrols. It's also easy to view their role, somewhere between the military, a private mercenary contractor, and a local law enforcement agency, as "reflecting a shift in the culture of police work", not only in the way it is practiced, but in the way the military is pitched and the way it is sold to the police force.

In his own words, "These elite units are highly culturally appealing to certain sections of the police community. They like it, they enjoy it," he says. "The chance to strap on a vest, grab a semi-automatic weapon and go out on a mission is for some people an exciting reason to join - even if policing as a profession can - and should - be boring for much of the time. [...] The problem is that when you talk about the war on this and the war on that, and police officers see themselves as soldiers, then the civilian becomes the enemy."

As time always tells, the BBC just ran an article about a case in which a SWAT team gunned down an unarmed Virginia doctor, stoking concerns that the proliferation and overuse of these proto-militant police squads in everyday circumstances creates an unnecessary potentiality for mistakes and abuse.

Of course, SWAT could also be seen as embodying the apparent policy ambiguity preserved under the guise of Homeland Security (as a way to hijack local authorities with federal security mandates), which seems to give the powers of law enforcement in this country, without impunity, the right to use preemptive brute force whenever they see fit, even on their own people.

Warrior Cops: The Ominous Growth of Paramilitarism in American Police Departments (Diane Cecilia Weber)
S.W.A.T. Team Use In U.S. Law Enforcement Dramatically Increases (Professor Peter Kraska - 1997)
SWAT Teams Everywhere (Mother Jones)
Death raises concern at police tactics (BBC)
SWAT Did You Say? (Slate)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Gates of Hydrological War

[Image: Andy Levin/Contact Press Images, for The New York Times].

New Orleans now has new gates of war – the war against natural hydrology: "They are monumental things, these structures, as tall as four-story buildings and as brutal as bad public art. Each of them slightly resembles a giant's chair with massive steel lattices of pipe braced and welded every which way."

[Image: Andy Levin/Contact Press Images, for The New York Times].

The gates are being built for the Army Corps of Engineers. "Once the structures are in place, their steel gates, which will normally be raised, can be lowered and locked down before major storms to provide protection against a surge like the one that caused the canal's levees to fail during Hurricane Katrina. When the gates are closed, the lake's waters will not be able to rise against the canal's fragile walls."
Read more about the gates at the New York Times; read more about military hydrology at BLDGBLOG.

Tokyo Secret City

This is an old story, but I still like telling it. Japanese researcher Shun Akiba has apparently discovered "hundreds of kilometers of Tokyo tunnels whose purpose is unknown and whose very existence is denied."

[Image: From the LOMO Tokyo flickr pool; image by someone called wooooooo].

Shun, who believes he is now the victim of a conspiracy, stumbled upon "an old map in a secondhand bookstore. Comparing it to a contemporary map, he found significant variations. 'Close to the Diet in Nagata-cho, current maps show two subways crossing. In the old map, they are parallel.'"
This unexpected parallelization of Tokyo's subway tunnels – a geometrician's secret fantasy – inspired Shun to seek out old municipal construction records. When no one wanted to help, however, treating him as if he were drunk or crazy – their "lips zipped tight" – he woke up to find his thighs sealed together with a transparent, jelly-like substance –
Actually, he was so invigorated by this mysterious lack of interest that "he set out to prove that the two subway tunnels could not cross: 'Engineering cannot lie.'"
But engineers can.
To make a long story short, there are "seven riddles" about this underground world, a secret Subtokyo of tunnels; the parallel subways were only mystery number one: "The second reveals a secret underground complex between Kokkai-gijidomae and the prime minister's residence. A prewar map (riddle No. 3) shows the Diet in a huge empty space surrounded by paddy fields: 'What was the military covering up?' New maps (No. 4) are full of inconsistencies: 'People are still trying to hide things.' The postwar General Headquarters (No. 5) was a most mysterious place. Eidan's records of the construction of the Hibiya Line (No. 6) are hazy to say the least. As for the 'new' O-Edo Line (No. 7), 'that existed already.' Which begs the question, where did all the money go allocated for the tunneling?"
Shun even "claims to have uncovered a secret code that links a complex network of tunnels unknown to the general public. 'Every city with a historic subterranean transport system has secrets,' he says. 'In London, for example, some lines are near the surface and others very deep, for no obvious reason.'" (Though everyone knows the Tube is a weaving diagram for extraterrestrials).

Further, Shun reveals, "on the Ginza subway from Suehirocho to Kanda," there are "many mysterious tunnels leading off from the main track. 'No such routes are shown on maps.' Traveling from Kasumigaseki to Kokkai-gijidomae, there is a line off to the left that is not shown on any map. Nor is it indicated in subway construction records."
Old underground car parks, unofficial basements, locked doors near public toilets – and all "within missile range of North Korea."
What's going on beneath Tokyo?

(Thanks, Bryan, for originally pointing this out to me! For similar such explorations of underground London, see London Topological; and for more on underground Tokyo, see Pillars of Tokyo – then read about the freaky goings-on of Aum Shinrikyo, the subway-gassing Japanese supercult. And if you've got information on other stuff like this – send it in...)

[Note: This post published earlier on BLDGBLOG].

Bunker Archaeology

"Walking along the beach some years ago, I noticed a dark structure emerging from the mist ahead of me," J.G. Ballard writes in today's Guardian. "Three storeys high, and larger than a parish church, it was one of the huge blockhouses that formed Hitler's Atlantic wall, the chain of fortifications that ran from the French coast all the way to Denmark and Norway. This blockhouse, as indifferent to time as the pyramids, was a mass of black concrete once poured by the slave labourers of the Todt Organisation, pockmarked by the shellfire of the attacking allied warships."

This wall of now abandoned concrete bunkers, Ballard tells us, was but part "of a huge system of German fortifications that included the Siegfried line, submarine pens and huge flak towers that threatened the surrounding land like lines of Teutonic knights. Almost all had survived the war and seemed to be waiting for the next one, left behind by a race of warrior scientists obsessed with geometry and death."

[Image: Richard Doody].

Ballard then climbs into one of the ruined blockhouses, and finds it reminds him "of the German forts at Tsingtao, the beach resort in north China that my family visited in the 1930s. Tsingtao had been a German naval base during the first world war, and I was taken on a tourist trip to the forts, a vast complex of tunnels and gun emplacements built into the cliffs. The cathedral-like vaults with their hydraulic platforms resembled Piranesi's prisons, endless concrete galleries leading to vertical shafts and even further galleries. The Chinese guides took special pleasure in pointing out the bloody handprints of the German gunners driven mad by the British naval bombardment."

[Image: Richard Doody].

And so on – we meet Modernism, ornament, Stalin, Hitler, London's National Gallery, the high-rise architecture of death and class warfare: read more at the Guardian.
Of course, in The Rings of Saturn, W.G. Sebald takes us on a walking tour of the English coast, including Britain's own military landscapes. These abandoned weapons testing ranges, complete with odd concrete structures, Sebald writes, looked like "the tumuli in which the mighty and powerful were buried in prehistoric times with all their tools and utensils, silver and gold. My sense of being on ground intended for purposes transcending the profane was heightened by a number of buildings that resembled temples or pagodas, which seemed quite out of place in these military installations. But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe."

[Image: Keith Ward].

For Sebald, "wandering about among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery, the beings who had once lived and worked here were an enigma, as was the purpose of the primitive contraptions and fittings inside these bunkers, the iron rails under the ceilings, the hooks on the still partially tiled walls, the showerheads the size of plates, the ramps and the soakaways."
It is interesting to note that both Sebald and Ballard discuss an isle of the dead

[Image: Arnold Böcklin, Isle of the Dead, 1883].

– specifically, in Ballard's case, Arnold Böcklin's famous 1883 painting of that title.
In any case, you can also take a look at the site Atlantik Wall for more images and history; you can follow Subterranea Britannica's journey into some weird missile silos –

[Image: Nick Catford].

– built into the landscape of northern France; you can read Paul Virilio's now somewhat legendary exploration of abandoned WWII landscape architecture, Bunker Archaeology; and you can take a brief look at the observations made here, as part of a larger architectural travelogue that begins in London's Barbican.
Of course, you can also take a look at an art project, from 1998, by Magdalena Jetelova

– in which she laser-projected select quotations from, what else, Paul Virilio's Bunker Archaeology onto the half-submerged fortifications found scattered along Normandy's beaches.

Finally, here's a good interview with J.G. Ballard; and, though irrelevant to bunkers, I recommend Ballard's Super-Cannes in the highest possible terms. (Though it's certainly not for everyone).

[Note: This post published earlier on BLDGBLOG].

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hiding in perspective

Speaking of camouflage, you could probably add the photography of dutch artist Desiree Palmen to Gravestmor's 'Notes on the Denial of Perspective'. Clothing as facade, or, the fashion encryption of cloak space. The result is a kind of inflected flatness that allows the subject to squat impercetibly in the open without being seen.

I can picture some architecturally intuitive villain lurking in the backgrounds of a graphic novel this way. Part furtive nomad, part fashion-dependent stalker, part agoraphobic spatial mime, obsessed with angles and depths, the science of perspective, so that he can easily hide out in some innocuous corner, or matted up against an object to haunt you in plain view. Like a geometric chameleon or something, he trespasses the toggle of surveilled space as if it were a kind of urban performance art, (ironically meant to avert the audience's gaze), slipping in and out of (in)visibility through a contortion-ballet of self-framed poses, strategic rest spots, choreographed moments situtated in the blind spots of the public eye's observed spatial indifference.

(Found at Geisha asobi blog)

Gravestmor: Notes on the Denial of Perspective 01 & 02
Subtopia: Our favorite color camouflage

Friday, March 17, 2006

Our favorite color camouflage

"Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress," is an exhibition of new work by Swiss-born, Paris-based artist Thomas Hirschhorn. This multilayered project explores the current world situation, permeated by military conflicts and violence, through the metaphor of camouflage, which has been adapted from battlefield uniform to street fashion statement.

Hirschhorn's installation asks, "What does it mean when a costume of war becomes a look or a style? Does it imply that conflict has become fashionable, or does it simply indicate mass indifference? Or does it reflect a militarization of the self in societies that are more and more competetive in every sphere of life?"

The conceptual leaping-off point for "Utopia, Utopia" is the prevalence of camouflage in contemporary culture and politics—as a style of dress on the streets of SoHo and as an emblem of battle in the current conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the level of fashion, camouflage signifies toughness—an affectation that draws attention to the self. In contrast, soldiers wear camouflage to disappear, to better function within the group or army by removing themselves from view. Hirschhorn sees this as an allegory for the dystopia of current events, and takes this fashion trend to the extreme, creating a utopian world of equality whereby military camouflage becomes the clothing of everybody on earth.

"In camouflage, the artist has found an unlikely yet compelling expression of the complex and often intangible relations between global economy, politics, and power. Indeed, its endlessly repeatable, form-disrupting pattern servess as an apt symbol for the nightmare of a globalized cultural entropy where difference, and the potential for meaning, are pulverized into a homogeneous sprawl." - Nicholas Baume & Ralph Rugoff

(Thanks to Heather Ring for making me aware of this)
Images (except the first two, by Subtopia) : Artnews : Boston Phoenix
Related: Is Cloaking Technology for U.S. Infantry Warfighters Finally Possible?

March 10–May 13, 2006:
CCA Wattis Institute Presents Thomas Hirschhorn, "Utopia, Utopia = One World, One War, One Army, One Dress"

in the Urban Periphery of Monterrey

"The artistic practice of the Mexican artist collective Tercerunquinto primarily addresses architecture as a means of disjunction of social space.

The site the collective chose for the Project of Public Sculpture in the Urban Periphery of Monterrey (2002–ongoing) is a marginal area called Los Naranjos located in the outskirts of the cities of Monterrey and Escobedo, Mexico. Los Naranjos is mainly composed of illegal settlements whose accumulative growth is based on a spontaneous appropriation of space rather than on its rational compartmentalization.

Following a discussion with the community, Tercerunquinto introduced a permanent forty square meter concrete slab in a context characterized by the instability of its precarious architectural settings and in which property and ownership are negotiated on a daily basis. The deliberate unfolding of the piece as a sculptural element stands as an experiment on how artistic practice and its social environment can affect each other.

The activation of the public sculpture's self-referentiality through its use and appropriation by a collectivity turns it into a mediating platform for the cultural, social, and political interests of its users (the slab has been used for activities such a the distribution of food, blankets, medicine, as well as for religious and political meetings, among other things). This opens the possibility for a continuous transformation and renewal of its functions according to the shifting coordinates of this urban conglomeration."

Project drawings and photos are on display at the Wattis Institute (California College of the Arts) in San Francisco.