February 5, 2015

Maghoki Attar mosque, Bukhara

Just a few photos of this extraordinary “mishmash of the original 12th-century building (mainly in the southern facade and doorways) and the 16th-century reconstruction.” Like most of Bukhara’s historical mosques, it’s currently in use as a carpet shop (or “museum”). Photographed in 2004

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And while I’m at it, everyone’s favourite Chor Minar (four towers):

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October 3, 2013

Wargaming, sculpture and architecture

Patrick Stuart of the RPG blog False Machine writes a lot of very provocative meditations on art, gaming, writing and so on. This is the first time I’ve seen him take on the phenomenology of architecture, and… it just might be the most interesting thing I’ve ever read on the subject.
Mini’s might be like sculpture, but the battlefield is more like a cathedral… They are information-producing spaces. The information is a narrative.  In the cathedral the story is the religion. It never changes, but you are meant to. 

The battlefield is a story you create and reshape moment by moment.

The cathedral is a space you transit through, saints and the like look down on you from above. The battlefield is a space you create and change as you play. In both cases there is a kind of movement through the space, one literally with your body, the other with your intent and minds-eye.
…Most of what you see of you miniatures on the table is them facing away from you. Yes you can, and will see them from every other angle as the game goes on. But the primary, the assumed angle is from behind and from above, at about 75 (I think) degrees.
This is the same angle from which the Saints view you. Which explains why a great many religions are obsessed with certain headgears, robes and haircuts. It’s because God is looking at you from the same angle. 75 degrees. From behind. He wants you to have a distinctive reverse silhouette so he can pick you out of your squad. In case he needs to grab you.
Computer wargames (especially “real time strategy” games like original Warcraft, Command and Conquer) of course adopt the same perspective (because their markets grew out of tabletop wargamers and because of the same practical reasons used on the tabletop – that’s how you and Napoleon and Garry Kasparov find it easiest to move forces around)…
But they’ve largely abandoned this view in their advertising – which is supposed to “immerse” (involve and implicate) you in the game’s world and get you to identify with the characters
maybe because the actual experience of play is adapted for utility of interaction, not maximum visual impact,
maybe because actually playing the game looks kinda nerdy. By which I mean containing purposes and interactions not immediately obvious to bystanders.
And as the mode of interaction becomes “freer” (less continuously directed toward a defined set of goals) so the amount of incidental space in the game increases and the screen of the player becomes less entertaining to bystanders.
June 10, 2013

Really brilliant piece of space-hacking for public awareness campaign




These corner-hugging stencil-graffitti posters are the work of Argentinian sex workers’ political organization Ammar. The message is that 86% of sex workers in Argentina are mothers – and that they want proper legal regulation.

Architecture very often appears in service to graphic design – it’s not often that graphic design gets featured on this architecture blog (or anything recently, actually) – but this is a smart smart use of a very simple spatial unit. Viewpoints frame, and here for a change they are commented on. The derive is the message.

Also it’s, like, on a street corner. It requires walking to understand. That is some kind of situated and bodily communication right there.

January 23, 2012

Some photos of Merv, 1

So I mentioned these photos to someone, and they said “I can’t see them because they’re on your facebook page,” and so I put them up here. I visited Merv, Turkmenistan in 2004. It showed me things I’d never seen before.

In the 12th century Merv was a thriving metropolis, which sometimes hosted the Seljukid emperor. It stood in the heart of Turkish (or Turkmen, if you like) Khorasan, the northeasternmost really legitimate province of the Abode of Peace under Islam (a few hundred miles further east you’d get into Mawarannahr – “what-lies-beyond-the-river,” the abode of border forts and ribats and occasional marauding Sino-Turkic infidels). It had pottery kilns and streets and markets and gardens and even crucible steel production facilities, and it was mostly made out of mud brick. And then in 1220 the Mongols sacked it and slaughtered the population and it never quite bounced back.

700 years later Merv attracted the attention of Soviet archaeologists, who had stories to tell about its rulers and the glories of the past and the superstition of religion. These archaeologists, and a lot of historians of Islamic architecture in the West, got very excited about the mausoleum of the last Great Seljuk emperor worth the name – Sanjar – which was mentioned in contemporary texts and showed great advancement in architecture and engineering and could be fitted into neat narratives of the development of architectural prowess under Islam, and stood pretty much in the center of the city.

They got much less excited about the other buildings of the Merv oasis, because they didn’t know what they were for. They weren’t identified in contemporary texts. And although they were unusual and distinctive and big and numerous, they weren’t remarkable from an engineering standpoint. Over the past 90 years a lot of them have fallen down. Now Merv is a UNESCO World Heritage site, which you’d think would protect what remains, but actually the government of Turkmenistan doesn’t take any very great pains to keep them standing. So here is what they looked like in 2004:

They have names like “palace” and “great Kyz Kala” (something like fortress – probably nothing of the sort) and “little Kyz Kala” and “Citadel” and “dove house” (maybe a library?).

The defensive works were of much clearer interest, because they showed a document of how long Merv’s history as a settlement might stretch back, and how many times it might have been re-fortified. It turns out that an inner city, smaller than the total city area but by no means modest, may have been continuously occupied for about 3000 years, and that its walls had been strengthened by degrees over that time, until they formed a formidable defense indeed. Cutting a road through them displayed many, many successive layers of brickwork:

Now the whole city – something like 12 square kilometers – lies intact in the ground. It’s fallen down, it’s been looted, wild camels crop tamarisk in the shade of mud-dunes that were once city walls – but if you dig anywhere, evidence of the city is just under the surface.

January 23, 2012

wetropolis, or “let’s build a town on the Andaman Sea”

The CGI “photos” of Wetropolis (via Likhit) are fascinating, but I have reservations about the practicality of this seasteading project off the coast of Thailand, and not just because it looks so expensive that it’s probably by default a playground for the rich (I have to admire the chutzpah of putting actual Thai watercraft in the shot – it’s like showing Fred Flintstone’s feet poking out of the bottom of his sleek sportscar).

For instance, it might be a little sanctuary in the event of widespread flooding, but how does it then connect to the land, which probably won’t enjoy the same protection. And, didn’t some Tsunamis come through there not so long ago? How tall are those stilts? How fast can the living units go up and down on them? Is it actually a better idea than just living on a bunch of boats tethered together?

For my money, this gallery of 6 designs for floodproof homes pretty much covers the gamut of such projects, from the immediately practical and largely familiar to architect’s renderporn to the sustainability fantasies that schools and studios seem to be encouraging this year. And this project shows a very interesting proof of concept for something or other, although probably not commercial shipping.

December 7, 2011

Map of France as a ship

This is the post where many of my enthusiasms collide: France converted into waterborne transport – the Ship of State in 1796, Napoleon ascendent, the departements outlined, apparently foundering on the rocky Pyrenees. The caption text is in English, which means it’s probably wartime propaganda, but of or for what? Frank Jacobs points out how it’s not always easy navigating this kind of thing: The map was produced in London, where an interesting ambivalence towards the French Revolution prevailed.

Brittany’s excluded from the ship because of the failed counterrevolution (1793-1796) emanating from the Vendée, so at the time of production it could not be seen as part of France’s geo-body. Is that the revolutionary tricolore, as Jacobs claims, flying from the main, or a reference to the recent annexation of the Netherlands? It says “departement du nord” and there’s something oddly ragged about the two departements just under it, roughly making a sail. Paris is a battleground, of course, but what’s Corsica doing, breaking the frame there in the corner? The strangest detail: the ship’s bow and stern don’t agree – like it’s bent bananawise toward us, and the stern itself is unlike any contemporary vessel – it’s maybe something like a French stern from a hundred years before. Where is the wind coming from? Is it sailing forward or backwards? Why are the mizzen sails reefed or ragged or flapping? I have no idea. I’m sure it’s deliberate, though.

November 28, 2011

technology and landscape

This is more interesting than anything I might have to say about it – the ironic effects of landmines on the preservation of natural landscapes, placing woods, meadows, and even remote country roads off-limits, fatally tainted terrains given back to animals and vegetation. Reminds me of the surveys of Bikini Atoll 50 years after the nuclear tests, which found wildlife in considerably better condition than that which had been exposed to tourism over the same period.

At the other end of the landthreat spectrum, Tsunami Escape Pod is a great name for a band, but the artifact sadly doesn’t look either as functional or as gojirapunk as you might hope. … it measures 4 feet in diameter, can house up to four  adults [um? For how long?] …Inside you won’t find any safety-belts or webbing and there doesn’t seem to be much padding – just a vertical bar which survivors are expected to hold onto while bouncing off buildings and debris. Right. Also, on the plus side a buoyant sphere is a good choice of shape for dealing with unpredictable threats but on the minus side, it’s completely uncontrollable, unstabilizable, and incapable of dealing with threats like sudden acceleration or crushing by other flotsam. Reminds me of Roger Dean’s retreat pod, only more paranoi.

It looks like even if you get swept out to see there’s no chance of escaping google – which is part of a robot vessel/sensor-pod scheme, to gather data about the oceans. Which in turn reminds me of how little we know about the deep sea, and how comparable such ventures are to the Mars Rover.

November 8, 2011

Times Higher Ed World University Rankings

I don’t set all that much store by international rankings of universities – criteria that hold true across multiple education markets are hard to come by, and anyway, what’s being measured when you rank an institution as broad and diverse and irrational as a university? The quality of its teaching? Measured how? The quality of its research? Well, counting citations is some kind of useful metric there, particularly for sciences, but it’s still a pretty blunt instrument… And then the THE says it measures “international outlook” (number of foreigners on the faculty, I guess), but what does that measure?

Then there’s the question of who is compiling and ranking, which gets you into all the usual questions of intentional and unintentional bias – what people measure for, what they take as evidence and what they think that evidence means, and on and on. So I take this with a large pinch of salt. I doubt, for instance, that Oxbridge really deserve the prominence they enjoy on this British table, and I’m suspicious of the relative invisibility of non-Anglophone institutions, especially when you consider that Anglophone scholars are simply in a larger pool for citation purposes than most others.

And yet, and still and all… foolish though I know it is, I can’t help feeling something undefinable about having gone first to a top 5 institution, then a top 20, and now looking for post-docs around 100 and 150…

October 18, 2011

Herat’s citadel restored

I hate to just repost entries from The History Blog here, but this one’s going in my archives too: Ancient citadel in Herat, Afghanistan, restored. The photos alone are worth the visit.

I’m ambivalent about these projects: part of me loves them and wants to fill the world with reconstructive playgrounds for inspiring historical feelings. Then there’s the very real value of reconstruction for advancing scholarship and public understanding. And then there’s the various political uses of such projects, for nationalism (which can have a positive side, if you look closely and from the right angle), identity-building, attracting tourist money, all of which – good and/or bad – is interesting.

But then there’s the cost to the site and its value as evidence of the past, rather than of our present interpretation. Archaeology is inherently destructive, but rebuilding atop your archaeological site is kind of a definitive statement that you don’t intend to learn anything further from the ground itself. And I’ve never met a reconstruction project that I approved of fully – it doesn’t have to be as dodgy as Parthian Nissa to go badly wrong: there’s the celebrated examples of Khiva and Bukhara, which lost much of their urban fabric as their monuments were restored, because the restorers had made an aesthetic and practical, financial decision that the monuments were important but the houses weren’t (a decision that, incidentally, fundamentally changes how the monuments themselves are read*).

So we see a high walled citadel, an interestingly complex array of windows and archways, and a strikingly clean, modern-looking urban precinct. And it looks very respectable. Greek, almost. And my first thought is “so this is what we’ve come to think ancient cities should look like.” How else should it look? Like a David Roberts painting? Hardly. Like it has people living in it, in costume, even? No, I don’t think so. But I think what we have says more about UNESCO and the 21st century heritage trade than it does about the Citadel at Herat.

* Kenneth D. B. Carruthers: “Architecture Is Space: The Space-Positive Tradition,” Journal of Architectural Education,Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring, 1986), pp. 17-23.

September 28, 2011

Join the Navy…

US: to help people (“America’s Navy – a global force for good”). [ahem. That’s why they need all those weapons?]

Russia: to shoot stuff [ahem. To the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack]

Japan: for love! And dancing.

India: to do stuff in formation [to Carmina Burana]

Philippines: for constancy AND change, stability AND excitement.