Archive for ‘architecture’

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.

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.

May 30, 2011

Incredible presentation of New York Harbour maritime urbanism

Worth checking out for the slides alone. This, I think, just might be what I do next: from the waterfront urban studies.

Christina Sun’s presentation for Coastlink’s Hamburg conference, on New York and the Hudson. Scroll down for grain elevators, disused factories and overloaded skiffs.

March 2, 2011

New York is a luxury product

This looks set to be a fascinating story in serial blog form: an anthropologist trained in urban planning studied the Bloomberg administration from 2003, watching them treat New York as a business that required design and marketing and management. His biggest surprise: that they actually paid some attention to academics.

I remember the west side was receiving all the attention when I was in NY from roughly 98 to 03, with Hell’s Kitchen being remarketed as Chelsea Clinton and the Meatpacking District being touted as the new hotness; evidently that intensified, as the piers came under ever greater development pressure.

I’m looking forward to hearing how it all went down.

February 22, 2011

roman villa in Shropshire, a reconstruction

So this rebuild of a Roman villa in Shropshire makes me question a bunch of things.

First, it’s really not very appealing. I see what they’re doing, with the various building methods and layers exposed, somewhat a la Knossos, and the (mostly) eschewing flashy tourist-pandering details. There’s no references to gladiators or lion taming here. The “shop” sells candles. But. I have no real desire to visit it. I think I know exactly what I’m going to find when I do, and what I’ll find is a testament to how little we really know about Roman daily life. It does a great job of de-exoticising Rome, but in its place it puts the kinds of timbers you can find at MFI. So it makes me question the place of entertainment, and of Hollywood pizazz, in all this. Should the truth get in the way of good presentation?

Second, they built the house as a standard Mediterranean Roman villa – there’s an intriguing hint that they don’t know how Romans might have adapted to local conditions. Or building methods/materials. So it’s really not a Shropshire house, as such. Makes me question what sort of truth is being preserved here – and whether our ignorance is being accurately modeled after all.

Third, the fabric of the house itself is considered carefully, the furniture not so much. And the paintings on the walls, dear god. The rattan chair may be possible in Rome, but it’s also very clearly post 1930 contract furniture. The 3 sofas of the triclinum are clearly improvised. The candles in the “shop” make it look like a stall at Glastonbury festival. So that makes me question their focus. Because a reconstruction like this is inevitably a gesamtwerk, whether its creators recognise that or not.

Also via history blog.

February 22, 2011

Port Cities website

Of course, my favourite building in London is a ghost, and something of a cliche: the shell of Battersea Power Station. But it’s long been stripped of all its glorious industrial age guts and has had an afterlife mostly as a set of fever dreams for urban planners who think “museum” will elevate their shopping mall plans. Greenwich Power Station, on the other hand, is still working. And, although clearly inferior as an icon, is still awkwardly mesmerising.

This post, though, is about the remarkable website I stumbled across while trying to figure out what the building was: Port Cities is the kind of project I love. Deep-time history (though not very deep resources) on Britain’s major ports. I just wish there were more of it.

…although I can’t complain about the 6 page article on London prostitution. Which itself stands as an interesting social document on what we look for out of history.

February 2, 2011

Museum virtual tours courtesy of google

The History Blog calls these “the world’s best museums.” Which is just asking for trouble. It’s a very good collection, though, including teasers* of the Rijksmuseum, the Uffizi, the Hermitage(!), the Met, the National Gallery in London, the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin, MoMA, the Tate…

Google art project.

In retrospect it was obvious. Now I want to see all the in-gallery interactives at the museums of natural history and science and the aquaria and imaginaria reproduced on the web.

There’s another thing, though: of course this reminds me of Giordano Bruno‘s memory palaces (and the Frick is a joy in a sea of bare walls, from that perspective), but as a method of library resource navigation (which is really what the web is, right?) it’s downright peculiar. Why would the museum’s collection be arranged in these rooms, if not to aid wandering and casual connection-making? If you know which artwork you want to see, is this a good interface? And it points up the disconnect between virtual touring and actual touring like nothing else. And the metadata, as usual, are troubling: who’s going to look for Rembrandt under “van Rijn, Rembrandt Harmensz.”?

Still, it’s an amazing thing. Thank you, google. Again.

* the Rijksmuseum contains only 9 rooms including the gift shop and 20 works in their “other works in this museum” section, and the collection shown does not include works in the “masterpieces of the Rijksmuseum” show they’ve had up during renovations. To really get a sense of the selection, though, check out the Hermitage floorplan, which includes the Rembrandt hall, mysteriously devoid of Rembrandts.

February 1, 2011

Pokemon as urban top predator

So the next generation of Pokemon games (black and white, US release in March) has a few features that are designed around Japan’s densely populated commuter culture. Actually previous versions had some of these, but I never put it all together before: with Japanese schoolkids spending up to an hour on the train each morning to get to school, suddenly the DS’s proximity features (peer-to-peer wireless communication apart from wifi, onscreen chat with up to 8 other nearby units) make a whole lot more sense. And trains have been getting wifi, so you can also get onto a global net (to trade pokemon asynchronously or do synchronized battling). But the new games’ features are starting to sound like a bldgblog near future post:

the ability to upload Pokémon into a digital cloud called the “Dream World”; and passive wi-fi functionality that allows commuters to peek into other games

Talk of clouds is so last year (though I confess I still don’t really know what the practical implications of the cloud are) and wifi hotspots on trains and planes are hardly news, but then this infrastructural footnote hits:

In addition, a hot spot service might be offered similar to the Poké Power Spot initiative currently in place in numerous Japanese stores and restaurants.

So Geoff Manaugh would say “the really interesting thing is when everyone is networked all the time and the park becomes your office as much as Starbucks, and then we have to redefine home again.” And maybe the smartphone is already that. Kinda. But I’m most interested in the exclusivity of Nintendo’s network. It’s opaque to parents, to users of other games, selectively to wifi. You don’t use it for email or music or youtube (though I guess with the DSi you can get up to phonecam shenanigans – another network I’d been ignoring). It is only for circulating Pokemon in-game tokens and reputation. And it seems to be able to support near ubiquity on that basis.

And it exists because of the infrastructural landscape of Japan, which potentially allows for different groups of kids meeting on the train every day, exchanging game tokens like the infamous azure flute from player to wireless to hotspot to cloud, forming tribes and optimized battlegroups with community-held powered-up Pokemon and taking on the kids of Osaka and building reputation on a national scale. The Pokemon Company’s US spokesman tries to put a brave face on his localization task: he points out that American schoolkids may not ride trains in large numbers but they do ride buses, but the stumbling block for the Pokemon franchise outside Japan is obvious. New York schoolkids on their banana bus might have a couple of wireless battle partners, but they have no chance of happening across power spots or pokemon-dedicated wifi nodes around town. The social opportunities of their pokeworld are comparable to a small suburban cul-de-sac in a desert, while the Tokyo pokekid lives in, well, Tokyo.

November 1, 2010

flickr 2: models of the musee national de la marine, paris

So I finally made it to the National Maritime Museum in Paris (Palais de Chaillot, a remnant of Paris’ own “white city” of 1889, still linked to the Eiffel Tower) to see the remarkable and oddly moving Tous Les Bateaux Du Monde, (no direct stable link! look over on the left side for a link, at least until the current expo is over…) and I was struck dumb by the collection of models of ironclads on the floor above.

It made me think of steampunk, and the improvisational nature of invention. It also made me aware of the Jules Verne Trophy (which is made mostly from aluminium, floats on magnetic repulsion and is based on the radii of the Earth, the moon and the sun – it’s the most geekycool object I’ve seen in some time, and it’s awarded to whoever sets the world record for sailing around the world in the shortest time).

Also of incredible interest: a trio of tiny dioramas showing how the obelisk in Place de la Concorde was transported from Egypt. And a bunch of other models made out of god knows what. And this Japanese boat with accompanying (unique, I think) 19th century plans and sections.