Archive for January, 2012

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.