WPA 2.0 phase 1
Posted by Mason on September 1, 2009 | PERMALINK

[WPA 2.0 competition is hosted by cityLAB.]

We are excited about the results from the recently hosted WPA 2.0 competition, and its enticing tagline: "Whoever Rules the Sewers Rules the City." The six selected projects look fantastic and we are honored to be among those included in the second phase developments.

Our project is titled Coupling Infrastructures: Water Economies/Ecologies and is centered on the twin dilemma of rising population and water shortages in the US southwest. In particular the project looks at terminal lakes in the region such as Salton Sea, Mono Lake, Pyramid Lake, and of course Owens Lake.

[Our submission: Water Economies / Ecologies]

We will be developing the project at the XXL scale as well as the S scale, both to understand and position the water infrastructure systems regionally as well their role as a new public realm. We are now working toward September 26 for a workshop in Los Angeles. November 16 will be the next date, which is a presentation by the six teams and symposium in Washington, DC including the jury and national policy-makers.

[WPA 2.0 competition infrastructure matrix.]

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Landscape Infrastructures DVD
Posted by Mason on August 30, 2009 | PERMALINK

[Landscape Infrastructures DVD now available.]

This past October 25, 2008, The Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design hosted a symposium organized and curated by Prof. Pierre Bélanger, recently swiped up by appointed by Harvard GSD, titled Landscape Infrastructures. Bélanger rightly marks our time as witness to a unique convergence of infrastructure and landscape. The urgency and opportunities of this embrace engineering of landscapes.

[Screen grabs from the DVD. George Baird (top left), Stan Allen (top right and bottom left, Jane Wolff (bottom right).]

Guest speakers included:
Stan Allen, Princeton University / George Baird, University of Toronto / Pierre Bélanger, University of Toronto / Julia Czerniak, Syracuse University / Herbert Dreiseitl, Atelier Dreiseitl / Kristina Hill, University of Virginia / Michael Jakob, Université de Genève / Nina-Marie Lister, Ryerson University / Kate Orff, Columbia University, SCAPE / Jane Wolff, University of Toronto

The proceedings of the symposium is now available in DVD format. Contact Pierre at belanger[at]harvard[dot]edu if you would like additional information.

[Mobility conduit, or landscape infrastructure par exellence.]

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Northern Experiments
Posted by Mason on August 11, 2009 | PERMALINK

[Northern Experiments project map.]
Directed by 0047, Northern Experiments is an impressive, broad survey of the Barents region, which includes northwestern Russia and northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The project was realized as an exhibition and book.

[Barents region developing industries.]

[Map showing inhabtants within reach of a new northern IKEA in Torino and Haparanda.]

The project encompasses a range of issues, opportunities, and dilemmas facing many cities and towns in this region that has become a resource extraction hotbed as well as strategic staging point for resource trade. Take for example the city of Hammerfest, Norway, which is no longer in decline because of the 19 million euros it earns in tax income from the massive StatoilHydro LNG plant at Melkoya. And then there are unique economic anomalies such as the merger of Torino in Finland and Haparanda in Sweden.

Though probably no other region has gone and will be going through as dramatic a transformation as northern Russia. The change is accelerated by post-communist market shifts, political jockeying, environmental change, and the oil and gas race. Places such as Kirovsk, Monchegorsk, and Nikel have seen these changes at different times throughout various regimes. Murmansk is the largest city inside the arctic circle with a population of about 350,000, and maintains the largest port in the region. The port currently processes fish, coal, and phosphate, though its position relative to the recently activated Shtokman gas field is sure to generate even more significant transformations.

[Traits of Murmansk, Russia.]

The book includes projects by BuroMoscow, NORD, Testbedstudio, Department of Urban Design and Planning, NTNU, and 0047. It is directed by 0047 in collaboration with the Barents Triennale and Pikene pa broen.

Big thanks to Kelly Doran for the lead on this.

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InfraNet travels
Posted by InfraNet Lab on August 10, 2009 | PERMALINK

I am traveling through Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Iceland in the coming weeks. You can catch some frequent twittering at twitter @masoncwhite and hopefully some (slightly less) frequent posts here on related travel findings...

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Harvesting Iceland
Posted by Mason on August 8, 2009 | PERMALINK


Probably no other country is considering such a significant (and potentially devastating) geo-engineering project as Iceland. With the entire country volcanically and geologically active, Icelanders are the most likely to achieve the world's first hydrogen society.

We will be in Reykjavik in two weeks time, and before that in Oslo, Norway, and Murmansk, Russia. Please hunt us down if you are located in any of these places and we would love to go out for Hakar or fårikål.

We can be reached at: editors (at) infranetlab (dot) org.

[Fissure swarms.]


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Student Works: An Infrastructural Lifeline for Palestine and Israel
Posted by Neeraj on August 5, 2009 | PERMALINK

[Torn Country, Thesis Cover Page, Christoph Hesse]

For Palestine and Israel, and undoubtedly for the rest of the world, the year 1999 was one of hope. A huge step towards a peaceful future in the Middle East was made in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, when the Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the so-called “The Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum”. It was overseen by the United States (represented by the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright) and co-signed by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan. Beyond political issues it contained the following physical (and potentially architectural) implications:

1) A stable and safe Gaza - West Bank Passage
2) The construction of a Seaport in Gaza to connect Palestine to the global economy
3) A Free Trade Zone shared by Israel and Palestine to foster stability
4) Solutions for the pressing water problems and the damaged Dead Sea area

This was all in 1999, ten years ago. Just one year later, in 2000, the promising situation was overshadowed by the start of the Second Intifada, halting the progress to the goals presented in “The Sharm el-Sheikh Memorandum”. It seems that the window of opportunity is almost now closed.

The following 'student works' critically re-examines the memorandum while addressing the current political situation and necessities.  Designed by Christoph Hesse for his Masters of Architecture and Urban Design Thesis (2007) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design,  the project highlights the potential of architecture, urban, and infrastructural design to go beyond political strategies (that often lack the strength to alter a given situation), to create a new reality, formulate new ecologies, and produce new economies.

Hesse states:

Especially in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, we have to overcome the domination of political approaches which usually end in military actions that capture a whole region under a ‘permanent temporarily’ of physical underdevelopment, fear and desperation. Maybe the project started as a dream, but so did peace in the Middle East.

[A stable and safe Gaza - West Bank Infrastructural Link]

[Water connection and elevation difference between the Mediterranean Sea and shrinking Dead Sea]

[Port Connection: A New civic center for Gaza, Image: C.Hesse]

The project proposes an inner harbor as a new seaport for Gaza - benefiting trade on the Gaza Strip, West Bank and Israel.  The origin of the water connection between the Mediterranean and Dead Sea would remain open as a canal to allow containerships to reach a distribution center in the hinterland of Gaza. Along the canal urban programs such as a linear park, housing and commercial areas would couple the infrastructure with other functions that are linked in a symbiotic relationship.

[Sectional Perspective.  Urbanization of the new canal and the inner harbor of Gaza.  Image: C.Hesse]

[Free trade zone shared by Israel and Palestine.  Image: C.Hesse]

The infrastructural form of the Gaza - West Bank connection is comparable to the shape of a boa. At two distinct points, the passage, which contains a four-lane road and railway connection, widens into a space for potential exchange between Israel and Palestine. The program of these critical sites are embedded into a free trade agreement to ease cooperation. Similar free trade zones exist between Israel and Jordan.

[Water storage reservoir with hotel and public functions.  Image: C.Hesse]

The end of the infrastructural connection occurs where the water tunnel reaches the Dead Sea.  Here, the water is held in an upper storage reservoir. Similar to the so-called urban attachments along the open canal in Gaza, a hotel is embedded in and around the dam that underlines the symbolic value of this place. Since the Dead Sea is located 418 meters below sea level, the drop between the upper reservoir and the Sea is ideal to produce fresh water and energy for the tourist industry and 250,000 households in Israel, Jordan and Palestine.  While doing so, the water replenishes and gives new life the shrinking dead sea.

[Fresh water for the shrinking Dead Sea and electric energy for the whole region]

Currently based out of Germany and Switzerland, You can view the current work of Christoph Hesse Architects & Lorenz Kocher Engineers  here.

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Inverted Infrastructural Monuments, pt.2
Posted by Mason on July 31, 2009 | PERMALINK


Prompted by an excellent text entitled "Three Doors to Other Worlds" by Andrew Crompton in the JAE from last November, we are following him down the rabbit hole. (Get the complete PDF here.) Crompton positions architecture within the cognitive sciences with a fancy for the grotesque / Baroque. In this particular text Crompton is seeking to chart and qualify architectures that elude description through drawing or photograph, instead requiring something more, err, cognitive. A tall order, and possibly one that were it actually taken to task would be a very short list in architecture, though maybe longer in art and media, and surprisingly engineering. One case in point in Crompton's search is the architectural equivalent of a black hole. It is a bellmouth spillway. In particular Crompton refers to the Ladybower bellmouth constructed in 1935 near Sheffield, UK.

[The spillway at the Monticello Dam, near San Francisco, CA.]

Unable to evaluate whether the bellmouth truly qualifies for its ineffable status having not seen them in person, it is easy to note in photograph the surreal nature by which the weighty mass of water at once appears as a single surface folding in on itself. Or as Crompton writes: It is easy to overlook its obvious purpose and see instead an object of sinister artistry. Simply speaking, the spillway is a massive drain for the reservoir. It prevents water from rising above a certain level and spilling over the dam or lake shoreline. The bellmouth at the Monticello Dam is the largest in the world at a diameter of 87 feet narrowing to 27 feet and can drain off 367,500 US Gallons per second. Gulp.

Spillways serve to regulate reservoir levels and maintain two states; (1) in use they disappear and are minimally obscured by flowing water, (2) not in use they are sculptural oddities hovering ambiguously above the water line. In use the spillway is pure negative space, a void; not in use, they are solid, positive space. Aside from Crompton's observations on the black hole condition, we would add the potential for contradictory phase change to its ineffability. The spillway swallows its own description as it imbibes water through Klein-bottle-like inversions.


The nomenclature behind the bellmouth spillways further its reading as a massive engineered earthen orifice. The mouth, the throat, the shaft. In refining the engineering behind the bellmouth for the Val Noci Dam in Montoggio, Italy a throttle and air supply was added to accelerate the spillways ability to process extreme flow and turn a 90 degree corner. In other words, to keep the bellmouth from choking on itself in grew a tongue.





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Inverted Infrastructural Monuments, pt.1
Posted by Neeraj on July 18, 2009 | PERMALINK

As the looming threat of global warming persists, one of the most prominent effects has been the erratic nature of weather patterns with pronounced emphasis on weather extremes. Some areas of the world are accustomed to such polarity. In Western India, for instance, three months of a healthy monsoon is followed by nine continuous months of arid weather. The polarization of weather promotes renewed interest in ancient infrastructures that could mitigate these extremes through sustainable means. In the case of the dry weather in Western India, this was done with Stepwells.

Dated to 600 AD, stepwells are essentially inverted ziggurats excavated from the earth, producing an infrastructural monument to water collection.  Like most great inventions, the concept driving a stepwell is surprisingly simple and composed of two parts – a well and access route.  The large well is used to collect monsoon rain, which then percolates through layers of fine silt (to screen particulates), eventually reaching a layer of impermeable clay.  Eroded rock from the Western Himalaya, further refined through several centuries of farming has produced a fine alluvium soil for the wells, which acts as an ideal filter. With larger sediment gathering at the top, the stepwell operates like an underground aquifer.

The second component of the stepwell, are the steps or access passages to collect the water.  Unlike traditional wells, stepwells allow one to enter, manage and maintain the well, creating a spatial occupation of the infrastructure.  Some stepwells contain continuous transport infrastructure, such as ramps, to allow cattle to reach and transport water.  More elaborated stepwells host galleries and chambers surrounding the passageways that were ornamentally sculpted.  It is no surprise that these wells that allowed communities to sustain their crops during the arid months, eventually became religious temples dedicated to water.  The functional characteristics of stepwells, soon made them a metaphor for the Ganges – the largest and most divine river in India.

What is intriguing about stepwells is that they were both an infrastructure to collect water as well a space of gathering and leisure.  As a subterranean landscape, the base of the inverted pyramids provided a cool microclimate to escape the hot conditions at grade. As such, these became central public spaces of gathering and architectural significance.  The collection of water also attracted large ecosystems of bees, fish, lizards, parrots, pigeons, and turtles amongst other species.  Each monsoon would reinvigorate these stepwells and promote new life.  As a functional, religious and social infrastructure, these became the central spaces for many communities to gather, bathe and converse.

The British Raj phased out the use of stepwells during the 19th century due to concerns over water borne parasites.  Beyond the architectural beauty of stepwells, was an infrastructural intelligence, which is of importance today.  These wells acted as water filters as well as mega storage and irrigation tanks in a completely sustainable manner.  As weather patterns continue to polarize, these local infrastructures could provide clues on how to handle and store water for irrigation.  For further reading, Morna Livingston has a great book on Stepwells, which I highly recommend.

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Student Works: Ecotone Hydro Park
Posted by Lola on July 13, 2009 | PERMALINK

A recent thesis project at McGill University by Tania Delage takes Lebbeus Woods’ idea of the borderline and the ecological phenomena of the ecotone as an opportunity to cross-breed infrastructure, ecology and public amenities.

The borderline is the site where various systems collide, superimpose, or react to create a new condition. (Woods) These systems can vary greatly in scope; from social conditions to ecological and biological conditions. They may be tied to shifts in economic activity, technological advancements, obsolete or growing infrastructure, and environmental phenomena. Ecotones are the natural spaces where transformation and growth occur, typically at borderline site conditions. It is these sites of superimposed systems that provide the grounds for a new ‘mode of culture.’

At an ecological scale, the site is the Great Lakes basin and Saint-Lawrence River, the largest freshwater system of the world. The watershed is home to many ecological systems and provides important migratory routes for fish that spawn in fresh water only to return to their salt water habitat. Ringed by areas of intense urbanization, the watershed represents a major transportation artery for commercial navigation and provides a source of hydro electric power to the surrounding areas. The waterway also serves as an open sewer to cities along its shore, as it simultaneously supplies their drinking water.

The site of intervention is the overflow or deversoir of the Rivière-des-prairies hydro-electric dam, one of the first built in Québec, located between the north shore of Montreal and the south shore of Laval. The overflow is essentially a giant retaining wall that allows for the regulation of water levels. The overflow is adjacent to the nature park - l’Ile de la Visitation. In contrast to the bucolic nature of the area, housing developments upstream discharge the equivalent of one Olympic-sized pool of untreated waste every three days into the river, producing highly polluted sediment in the area.

The project reconfigures the dam to become an inhabited filtration system and a public ‘water’ park. Fingers into the river form aerobic filtration gardens, while the concrete rings in plan form sedimentation basins, and support natural habitats for amphibians and waterfowl and re-establish migratory routes of certain fish species.

Hydro-electric generation can literally be turned on and off by shutting and opening the watergates, an endeavour lasting merely a few minutes. In times of low energy requirements, such as at night, the watergates are shut, thereby stopping the currents. The two water levels present in the site offer opportunities for a changing landscape, atune to the cyclical hydrological variations. Floating filtering gardens, located on the high water level sway back and forth with the currents produced by the dam to reminding visitors of the inner-workings of the facility itself. At the lower water level, an extension of the nature park is created, allowing visitors to experience the filter housing sequence.

Elements of the landscape become submerged, no longer suitable for human inhabitation but become appropriate for different types of wildlife. Part infrastructure, part landscape, the park becomes a shifting exchange point between water systems, energy resources, human users and animal habitats.

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High Speed Rail in America
Posted by Maya on July 9, 2009 | PERMALINK

By announcing $13 billion stimulus package aimed at the development of the groundwork for a high-speed rail (HSR) network, President Obama has catapulted intercity transportation to the front of infrastructural spending.

After peaking during the Second World War, passenger rail travel languished as America was connected with an impressive highway and aviation network.  A thinly scattered population paired with government subsidies for road and air travel suppressed rail’s role even further.

It’s clear that something has to be done with respect to passenger mobility between urban centres.  Once seen as the world’s most advanced highway and aviation systems, the primary modes of intercity transportation in the U.S. are facing increasing levels of congestion and, not unrelated, rising environmental costs.  Mr. Obama recently stated that highway congestion costs the country $80 billion each year in lost productivity and wasted fuel.  Along similar lines, the country’s current transportation system consumes 70% of the nation’s oil demands.  According to Mr. Obama:

“What we need, then, is smart transportation system equal to the needs of the 21st century…a system that reduces travel times and increases mobility, a system that reduces congestion and boosts productivity, a system that reduces destructive emissions and creates jobs.”

While there are some overlaps with the challenges faced by the transport revolutions of the 1960s, Obama’s transportation vision needs to address a set of new issues:   promoting energy independence and efficiency, building foundations for global economic competitiveness, and supporting interconnected, livable communities.

With all this in mind, HSR seems to be an obvious choice.  Recognizing that the US transportation system is the lifeblood of the economy, a HSR network can help support national and regional trade in a cost-effective and resource efficient manner.   In addition to supporting existing commerce, new investment in HSR will create high-skilled construction and operation jobs.  Along similar lines, manufacturing jobs will also emerge as essential components such as rails, control devices, and the train cars themselves will be required.  Secondly, HSR hits the mark with respect to energy efficiency and environmental quality.  It’s estimated that the implementation of the pending plans will result in an annual reduction of 6 billion pounds of C02.

Obama’s strategy focuses on ten rail corridors that move through regional population centres across the country.  The plan calls for a combination of investments in existing rights-of-way in order to permit running higher speed trains and the creation of entirely new routes.

The major criticism of the rail-based solution to transportation issues is cost – start-up, operational, and end-user.  In terms of start-up costs we’ve seen that a recent HSR construction in Spain averaged $22 million per mile. Other start-up costs include acquiring land and rights of way privileges from land owners.   Operational costs are significant in that the government would need to pay the private freight companies that own the tracks in order to run the new passenger lines.  Further, the high speed trains would be sharing the rails with the freight trains limited to significantly slower speeds – undoubtedly lowering their efficiency.   These governmental, tax-supported, expenses don’t offer a free ride for the end-users either.  A ticket on the only high speed rail route in the US, the Acela Express, connecting Boston to Washington D.C. via New York City, costs close to $200.

A secondary criticism deals with the actual speed of the trains.  It turns out the US high speed trains will not be as high-speed as their Asian and European counterparts. US trains will peak at 240km/h while HSR trains in Japan, Germany, and China are running at 300km/h or more.

While the financial weight of this proposal should not be overlooked, it’s important to consider the implications that these new systems would have on the ground.  How will these new corridors relate to existing fabric – both urban and rural (and everything in between)? Will a new pattern of development emerge? What is the relationship of these new corridors to already existing conduits such as highways? What type of spin-off development can be expected?  What will the relationship of these new developments be to smart-growth principles?

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Space Elevato(we)rs
Posted by Neeraj on July 7, 2009 | PERMALINK

Next week, the Space Frontier Foundation will kick off their NewSpace 2009 Conference at the NASA Ames Research Center. The opening day of the conference, entitled ‘Space Elevator Day’ will explore new technologies and possibilities associated with Space Elevators. The conference is strategically placed between an intriguing paper published earlier this month, and the Space Elevator Games, scheduled for early August.

While the concept of a space elevator was first proposed by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in 1895, more recently this dream is transforming from fantasy to reality. The functions of such an elevator are endless – from space tourism, to research, telecommunications, delivering payloads, and atmospheric monitoring. Perhaps the greatest function of such a device would be to empirically and directly witness the earth as an assemblage of interdependent systems.

Recently, three scientists at York University published an article in Acta Astronautica, outlining a concept prototype for a mega-inflatable tower that would act as an elevator to space. Proposed by Brendan Quine, Raj Seth and George Zhu, the 20 km tower would be made up of inflatable modules that have their roots in the Space Tether Concept that was popularized in the 1970s. The tether concept centered upon a counterbalanced mass system wherein the counterbalance would be situated in space, with a cable extending back to earth. These tethers were proposed to connect to space stations, and could be traversed by electric means. Not only does the tether give a stable system for venturing to space, it eliminates the need for chemical rockets (equivalent to 1000 tonnes of solid rocket fuel per trip) and their associated environmental impacts.

The greatest hurdle with building a space elevator, not surprisingly, is finding a material that is both strong and light enough to withstand the stress pressures of the upper atmosphere. This challenge incited Scientists examine inflatable modules, which are increasingly being used in contemporary spacecraft due to their simultaneous lightness and strength. Carbon nanotubes are also being explored for such a purpose due to their high strength, however, the expense and limited quantities of such a material suggests the inflatable modules are more viable. The inflatable tower would operate like a ‘telescoping wand’; each segment individually pulling out and locking into position. Pressure balancing and gyroscopic stabilization control systems would allow for a consistent position. These control systems would also enable the tower to counter natural forces such as strong winds by causing the structure to lean into the winds.

The proposed space elevator would be built up from the earth's surface in 150m pressurized segments, that are then stacked. Kevlar-polyethylene, which is already being produced in bulk, would be used to enclose and maintain the gas pressure. Gases such as air, helium and/or hydrogen would be used within the structure. The estimated weight for the 20km tower is approximately twice the mass of a supertanker. The York University scientists posit that the tower could theoretically be extended to 200km. It would take tourists and researchers around 40 minutes to reach the top of the 20km tower and offer a view of 600km in any direction.

The burgeoning space tourism industry is currently lead by ‘rocket’ ventures of Virgin Galactic and Project Enterprise. Space elevators, however, provide a more environmentally sensitive and safer route to space, inciting research by the Liftport Group and Japan Space Elevator Association. Recognizing the value of space elevators, NASA partnered with the Spaceward Foundation in 2004 to hold the inaugural Strong Tether and Power Beaming Competitions. The current Elevator 2010 challenges scientists to reach 1000m high while climbing at 5m/s (for a $2M prize!). While the ‘blue marble’ photograph of the earth taken in 1972, revealed the earth as an interdependent system of weather, habitats, and vegetation, space tourism has the power to frame both the relative complexities and vulnerabilities of earth.

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Strategies Against Desertification
Posted by Mason on June 15, 2009 | PERMALINK

Colleagues of ours, Aziza Chaouni and Liat Margolis, recently mounted a fantastic exhibition here at the Daniels Faulty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design. The exhibition is titled Out of Water: Innovative Technologies in Arid Climates. It is a survey of technologies and proposals addressing water scarcity.

Several projects within the exhibition are worth a more in-depth than I can do justice to here. Thankfully, rumor has it that there will be a publication forthcoming on the technologies and projects as well. More on that later. In the meantime, we will leave you with one technology and two projects as an introduction to Out of Water.

The Dixon Machine
Absorptive soil ensures against the devastation wrought by the twin desertification hazards of drought and deluge. The Dixon Land Imprinting machine restores the microroughness and macroporosity of compacted and barren soil to accelerate infiltration and revegetation processes. It is most effective in areas with low rainfall, degraded-, brushy-, rocky-, sandy-, and clayey soils, overgrazed ranges and abandoned agricultural land. The roller drops seeds onto the soil surface and imbeds them in the imprint surfaces. The imprinter forms interconnected water shedding and absorbing v-pockets, which function as rain fed micro-irrigation system. Down-slope furrows feed rainwater into cross-slope furrows where it collects and infiltrates. Revegetation is rapid because the imprints hold rainwater in place and captures seed, water and windblown plant litter, which works as mulch to suppress evaporation.

Sietch Waterbank - MATSYS + Nenad Katic
Sietch Nevada projects waterbanking as the fundamental factor in future urban infrastructure.
Sietch Nevada is an urban prototype that makes the storage, use, and collection of water essential to the form and performance of urban life. Inverting the stereotypical Southwest urban patterns of dispersed programs open to the sky, the Sietch is a dense, underground community. A network of storage canals is covered with undulating residential and commercial structures.

Those connect the city with vast aquifers deep underground and provide transportation as well as agricultural irrigation. The caverns, cellular in form constitute a new neighborhood typology that mediates between the subterranean urban network and the surface level activities of water harvesting, energy generation, urban agriculture and aquaculture. Sietch is also a bunker-like fortress preparing for the inevitable wars over water in the region.

Infrastructural Armature - Fletcher Studio
Los Angeles is a managed fantasy defined and sustained by its aging infrastructural legacy: freeways, channelized water networks, and power grids. These networks have grown horizontally, as vast sprawling enclaves are served by an incessant frenzy of individualized transportation and habitation. The forces of resource scarcity, global warming, and sea level rise will serve to radically alter future development. Los Angeles must assert its resiliency by radically altering its infrastructural investment. The city’s growth must re-organize, abandon its impervious terrains, and density along its matrices of transportation and hydrology. These networks of conveyance are incrementally inoculated with a metabolic landscape of wastewater reclamation, which in turn become catalysts for new forms of land uses. As sea levels rise, tidal energy is harnessed to operate desalination, as well as the distribution of reclaimed water.

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Energies and Boundaries
Posted by Mason on June 12, 2009 | PERMALINK

A new issue of AD was recently published titled ENERGIES: New Material Boundaries, edited by Sean Lally of WEATHERS. This edition focuses on the rich, yet overlooked, territory of design that foregrounds the effects of material energies on boundaries of environments. Boundaries are taken to mean atmospheric thresholds that are the result of material decisions. This refers to the transition in air quality, illumination, temperature, olfactory concentrations, acoustics, among others, that permeates interior environments. Serving as an upgrading of Banham's Well-Tempered Environment, ENERGIES consists of essays and projects that position the design of these often nearly invisible yet sensed conditions at the center of a contemporary debate between sustainability and atmospherics.

With so many technologies developed that are at the service of modulating our interior environments, it is little wonder that designers have marginalized their role to a perfunctory performance-based criteria - a "best practices" model. Or as Lally writes in his introduction:

... [W]hen it comes to one of the most prevalent and ubiquitous materials to influence architecture and its adjacent disciplines in the last thirty years – energy – we’ve made only stunted attempts to explore its design possibilities.

Sean and An Te Liu had invited me to write a text on Liu's recent work embodied by the climate-controlling megastructure "Cloud" found in the 2008 Venice Biennale in Architecture. The idea of boundaries in Liu's work is about invisibility. It explores the boundary of clean air from dirty, and varying degrees of processed air, and the psychological effects of that invisibility.

I recommend picking up a copy of the issue if you are interested in topics of modified environments, atmospherics, and the future of interior environments. Texts by Penelope Dean on green-washing and Michelle Addington on the illusive hermetic seal of building envelope round out a fantastic and thorough issue.

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Student Works: Arctic-tecture for the Global Commons
Posted by Neeraj on May 15, 2009 | PERMALINK

With the aim of providing a global architecture in the world’s largest terra incognita, emerges recent MIT graduate Andrea Brennen's M.Arch thesis: Arctic-tecture for the Global Commons. Brennen’s proposal centers on the mysterious and remote continent of Antarctica – where architecture and infrastructure are difficult to find. Antarctica has been in the news as of late – particularly because it contains sixty-five percent of the world’s fresh water reserves, and more importantly because they are quickly melting.

Brennen’s thesis, however, finds something else intriguing about Antarctica – its ambiguous ownership. With no indigenous population (except for scientists), Antarctica is legally designated as a Global Commons, residing under sovereign jurisdiction. Governments can demonstrate ‘substantial interest’ (and therefore gain voting power) by operating a scientific research facility in Antarctica. Therefore, Architecture becomes the mode for governments to lay claim on the Global Commons.

Operating in the spirit of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog -- a 1970s counterculture bible for “whole systems” thinking -- this project examines Antarctica as a testing ground for an expanded mode of architecture. Antarctica, with its extreme environment, scientific value, and legal status as a Global Commons, is a site that cannot be understood in any way other than through its relationship to a larger global environmental system. This reality, when combined with the continent’s mystique, creates an unparalleled opportunity for architectural innovation.

Architecture, or Artic-tecture takes the form of several programmes in dire need in Antarctica – particularly tourism and a biological vault. Brennen uses the concept of offset to ensure a symbiotic programmatic relationship between all parties. A mega-bio vault provides secure storage for global specimens, that is partly funded by tourism. Inspired by the Svalbard Seed Vault in Norway, Brennen’s bestows the following tasks on her vault:

This is a last-resort effort to protect global food sources from a range of threats such as war, natural disasters, or agricultural mismanagement. Unlike the Norwegian vault, it will not be controlled by a national government, but rather, will be located in the Global Commons.

The program is organized by the largest constraint in Antarctica – temperature. Warmer programmes are nested within cooler ones that are wrapped in nested inflatables. The inflatables are both easy to ship to the remote site, and use the simplicity of air to provide a high insulation value. Further, local materials – particularly snow and ice – enrich the Arctic-tectural material palette. Foundations of compacted ice support the large trusses, which use snow fins loaded with precipitating snow as a counterweight. The biological vault is simply cynlindrical shelves that slot into holes drilled into the compacted ice floor.

As resources become increasingly precious, Andrea’s proposal forecasts how minimal elements can create rich spaces. You can see more of Arctic-tecture and other work and research by Andrea here.

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Islands at the Top of the World – Airships Revisited
Posted by Neeraj on April 28, 2009 | PERMALINK

As energy costs rise and resources continue to deplete, seemingly defunct technologies tend to resurface. Airships are one such innovation, garnering more attention in recent years after decades of dormancy. Airships are ‘lighter than air’ structures that remain aloft with a lifting gas, such as helium. Propelled in a similar fashion to boats – using rudders and propellers, airships are presently used for advertising, tourism and aerial observation. New innovative research, however, is improving the speed and maneuverability of airships, making them a competitive means of transport in a fuel starved economy.

Jetfuel currently accounts for twelve percent of the CO2 emissions in the United States. With increases in air travel, once ‘impractical’ alternatives such as biofuels and airships are becoming viable solutions to lower fossil fuel consumption. The Spirit of Dubai, an airship primarily used for advertising, boasts that it uses less fuel in a week than a Boeing 767 consumes by traveling from gate to runway. The low fuel consumption has incited explorations into the cargo transporting ability of airships, particularly when speed is not vital. Airships are also useful for ‘hovering’ – sparking design interests from surveillance and observation to an ‘internet airship’ that can provide wireless access to mobile computer users.

Recently, Lockheed Martin was contracted by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Air Force to construct a prototype airship that would be solar powered. Termed the HAATM (High Altitude Airship), the airship is an unmanned structure that is located high above the jetstream (where the airs are calm) to provide surveillance and weather monitoring. The large surface areas of airships (which greatly increases their drag) provide an ideal site for solar farming – harnessing energy while transporting goods and people.

The Russian company, Ros AeroSystems is developing a high altitude airship that can carry 1200 kg – effectively transforming the routes that cargo is distributed. With an average daily power consumption of 100-230 kW, the ‘Berkut’ is equipped with solar cells to reduce energy consumption and increase endurance.

The American company Aeros has developed an ‘aeroscraft’ that can cruise at speeds of 200km/hr. An aeroscraft is a partially buoyant airship that also has gas cells that allows it to control lift while in the air or on the ground. Further, the 64m aeroscraft is being examined and tested to carry loads up to 60 tons. While unable to seat large number of passengers (currently seating only 20), the aeroscraft ML866 comes equipped with mobile program – conference rooms, libraries, hotel rooms, etc., effectively absorbing the grey goo of airport urbanism within the transport vessel itself.

While airship travel is appealing, there are still some challenges to overcome before air cruises become universal. First, is the reliance on helium. While helium is the second most abundant element in the observable Universe, it is quite rare on Earth. Although hydrogen gas is more buoyant than helium, it does not have the non-flammable characteristics of helium. Secondly, the load capacity of airships needs to increase to make these viable for mass transport. Currently, they are ‘luxurious’ only because they have more space than load capacity. By increasing their passenger and cargo capacity, they can attract a larger-than-luxury consumer base. The last obstacle to overcome would be traveler’s patience. Perhaps being in an island on top of the world will be worth the week long trip to Europe.

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Posted by Neeraj on April 19, 2009 | PERMALINK

The recent volatile nature of the stock market has incited a new type of investment – in Farmland. Deemed as ‘getting rich slow’, The Canadian Investment Company, Agcapita Farmland Investment Partnership, has taken to buying up vast amounts of the Canadian Prairies. Their mantra of ‘food, feed, and fuel’ has been attracting investors who are seeking secure and steady returns on investment. According to the NCREIF US Farm Index and the Lehman US Bond Index, returns to direct investments in farmland have exceeded stock and bond returns over the past 5, 10, and 17 years, with less volatility. It is perhaps the necessity of 'food, feed, and fuel' that has insulated farmland from the economic crisis. Further, continual land development which encroaches on arable land, coupled with a rising world population – makes farmland an increasingly precious resource. It is currently estimated that 25 million acres of farmland are lost each year.

There are other factors that are (and will be) bestowing more stress on farmland in upcoming years. As developing countries gain wealth, Agcapita speculates their diets will become more 'western' in terms of caloric intake largely due to higher amounts of meat consumption. Currently, the developed world consumes approximately 600 more calories a day, most of which is attributed to meat. Because meat has a larger crop demand (8 times the grain calories as feed), the stress on the land increases exponentially. The estimated increase on Biofuel consumption in the next 10 years will present further pressure on agricultural land. Canada is expected to implement 5% biofuel transportation by 2010, while the United States targets 7.5 billion gallons of consumption per year in 2012. Despite the increase in alga-biofarms (which need not be sited on arable land), Agcapita still speculates that these combined factors will instigate a 'productivity gap' between the 1.7% growth experienced in the past 40 years and an increase of demand of 56%.

Agcapita has taken to buying up a large amount of Saskatchewan Farmland, feeling that it is particularly undervalued. While Saskatchewan houses forty-five percent of Canada’s arable land, this land is still extremely cheap. Priced between $400 and $450 per acre, Saskatchewan possesses some of the cheapest farmland in the world (Compare this, for instance to $1100/acre in Alberta). Perhaps more importantly, Agcapita has formulated a way to open farmland to individual investors. In 2003, Saskatchewan allowed unlimited ownership of farmland by Canadians, lifting the exemptions to out-of-province residents. While the restrictions kept prices of farmland low, they have since started to creep up (In 2007 alone, Agcapita’s prices increased by eleven percent). According to the USDA Land Values and Cash Rents 2007 Summary, Farmland values have increased over nine percent per year from 1998 to 2007 – allowing investors to get rich slow.

While the logic behind Arginvestments is quite sound, the discussion should perhaps be more focused on how ownership and risk is negotiated, particularly for farmers. The relationship between a landowner and farmer is often either a ‘crop share lease’ or ‘cash rent lease’. A crop share lease entails that the tenant and owner share the costs and profits (and their associated risks) for the crops. This removes a large amount of risk and pressure from farmers – which has been increasing due to recent erratic weather changes. It is no surprise that crop share leases are on the decline in the United States, as cash rent leases offer less risk and involvement for investors. While Agcapita does not give information on their relationship and negotiation with farmers – who provides the infrastructure, covers costs, and absorbs the risk, etc. – Agrinvestments could potentially rework the relationship between land, owner and farmer to alleviate stress on the farmer. Earlier this week, the Pakistan Times reported that 1500 farmers in India gathered in a mass suicide. The suicides were triggered by falling water levels in the state of Chattisgarh, drastically reducing yields and putting increasing strain on farmers that were already in debt. Depleting water levels were attributed to nearby forest depletion and poorly planned government dam projects. Most of these farmers could not afford water well infrastructure, leaving them with unproductive land and large loans. Perhaps the system of farmland ownership needs to be reevaluated to ensure that the onus and risk of changing climatic patterns is shared by more than farmers – even if this requires investors to get rich slightly slower.

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Sea Dust, pt 3, or Lithium Nirvana
Posted by Mason on April 13, 2009 | PERMALINK

The optimism surrounding the potential of electric vehicles to mitigate resource extraction does overlook a few key factors that extend beyond the obvious economic and cultural hurdles. One interesting factor is resources needed; Yes, resources for electric and hybrid vehicles. Such as the need for massive amounts of lithium carbonate. Lithium is the mineral of choice for batteries, and is found in most laptops and mobile phones. It is central to the next generation of hybrid and electric cars and this success will depend upon 5 times the current estimates of lithium worldwide to support the emerging industry.

Many are turning to Bolivia for clues. With over half of the world's (untapped) lithium reserves found in Bolivia, in the the Uyuni salt plain, the attention is obvious. Uyuni is the largest salt playa in the world, covering nearly 9,000 square kilometers. The salar playas are believed to have been a closed basin for the last 10000 years. Receiving about 300mm/year of rainfall has created a repeated wet/dry cycle and a thick but smooth evaporite of mostly halite.  Besides its fascinating geomorphological history, the Uyuni is also simply a stunning endless mirror landscape of surficial saline waters.

Recently, the southern Uyuni has been found to contain major lithium deposits, originating from the drainage area of the Rio Grande de Lipez. And with this discoverey comes attention from major companies and developers, such as Mitsubishi, to mine this landscape. Currently Bolivia depends predominantly upon the export of natural gas for economic viability. Pressure to determine the future of this landscape is mounting with economic and environmental concerns complex and contradictory...

Sea Dust, pt 1
Sea Dust, pt 2

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After Zero
Posted by Mason on March 29, 2009 | PERMALINK

NEW GEOGRAPHIES #1 to launch March 31

Edited by doctoral candidates at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design (GSD), the second volume of the New Geographies journal is entitled "Volume One, After Zero." Contributors to New Geographies #1: AFTER ZERO include: Albert Pope, Ulrich Beck, Pier Vittorio Aureli, Martino Tattara, Erik Swyngedouw, Keller Easterling, Thomas J. Campanella, Francois Blanciak, Yasser Elsheshtawy, Matthew Gandy, Behrang Behin, Lola Sheppard, Mason White, Joseph Grima, and Peter Hall.

A reception to launch the publication will be held from 6:30 pm to 8:00 pm on Tuesday, March 31, at the Harvard GSD. Copies of the journal will be available for sale at the event and thereafter at the GSD online bookstore and through Harvard University Press. For additional information, visit the new geographies website.

To purchase, please visit this online bookstore.

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Sea Dust, pt 2
Posted by Mason on March 25, 2009 | PERMALINK

It was fascinating to follow João Navalho's transformation of a microalgae field to traditional salt harvesting ponds in Portugal. What was originally a salt pond was converted to microalgae in anticipation of supplying natural orange dye for the organic food market. Later, as the market's interest dwindled, the site became a dumping ground for residential waste. It dawned on him to return the site to its former glory of salt production. In salt production, there are really only two economically viable models: industrial-grade and boutique. Navalho's farm in Olhão (southern tip of Portugal) offers the later boutique model.

The holy grail of salt prodction is flor de sal, or "flower of salt." This is hand-harvested salt, using 2000 year old techniques, by skimming the top surface before salt falls to the bottom of large solar pans. This speciality salt is typically found in Brittany, though the Algarve / Olhão region has gained recognition more recently. In Brittany, the Guérande salt pans are the largest fluer-du-sel producer with several hundred smaller pans. This area has been harvesting salt since the mid-800s, as a result of the natural retreat of the Atlantic and resulting floodable pools.

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Breathing Earth
Posted by Neeraj on March 21, 2009 | PERMALINK

Multimedia artist David Bleja has created an interesting simulation entitled "Breathing Earth". Breathing Earth catalogues and projects birth and death rates for the globe as well as the amount of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere... all in real time. As such, it is a simulation, but based on pretty realistic sources (including population data from the CIA World Factbook and CO2 rates from the United Nations Statistic Division).

What is interesting about Breathing Earth's organizational output, is that it does not calculate CO2 emissions per capita (which is great for finger pointing) but rather by how LONG it takes to emit 1000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, highlighting the pressing issue of time. Quickly scrolling over the animation, comparisons do emerge however; for instance, in North America, it takes 52 seconds for Canada to emit 1000 tonnes of CO2 compared to 5.2 seconds in the US and 1.2 minutes in Mexico. Compare that to 4 hours in Mozambique. While most of the 'developed world' prides itself on making things faster and more efficient, it seems that the pace in the 'undeveloped world' coincides with a reduce rate CO2 emissions. While Breathing Earth is organized around political divides, it does not account for where the atmospheric winds carry these emissions. Satellite sensor studies conducted between 2002 and 2005 by NASA revealed that pollution does indeed travel. NASA’s investigation stated that approximately 4.5 teragrams (or 10 billion pounds) of pollution aerosols traveled to North America from China over the four years of the study. This pollution could cross the Pacific in about a week, and was equivalent to 15 percent of the local emissions in North America. The data was collected by NASA’s MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) Instrument, which is stationed on the Terra satellite. The MODIS instrument is able to differentiate between broad particle types in the atmosphere and records these every day or two. This allows us to understand not only where pollution is produced but also where it is going. While NASA’s study did not look at the where the pollution from North America, Europe or Australia finds its way to, it will not be long before we have a clear sense of pollution flows throughout the world.

I've been watching this animation for close to thirty minutes, and since I've been plugged in, 6 240 people have been born, 2490 have died, and 1224000 tonnes of CO2 have been injected into the atmosphere. Breathing Earth is a gripping reminder that we have supersized the capacity of our planet.

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