Archive for July, 2009

After writing the earlier post on artist-designed traffic jams, I just remembered one of my favorite projects by the Dutch architect Wiel Arets — his “Boulevard Domburg” (1990). In this masterplan, Arets designed a bottleneck-producing, z-shaped stretch of road, set within a larger highway scheme that incorporated housing.

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In many ways “Boulevard Domburg” recalls the early Obus Plan proposal by Le Corbusier for Algiers. But unlike the much more famous Obus Plan (that also incorporated housing and highways), Arets’ project challenges the concepts of circulation driving Corbusier’s and many other modern city planning schemes.

Aret’s project involves something we might term “anti-circulation.” Arets purposely includes a bottleneck, a detour that forces cars to slow to a standstill. Within this zig/zag detour Arets brings the existing town and the seaside into the view of the driver. It enables a driver and their passengers to consider their particular location within the slipstream of an automotive environment. Arets not only brings a new appreciation of a highway’s particular context, he opens up a space, a very interesting space, for other forms of knowledge to enter the experience of driving.

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As anyone knows from driving in the United States, there’s a certain direct and palpable relationship between speed and historical knowledge. Zipping through a town not only limits our ability to understand it; the highways and roads of the United States are dotted with historical markers and signs that are comically unreadable at the speeds most people drive. I often recall particular detours — due to accidents, sudden natural hazards, or road work — that led to fantastic discoveries — an old mill town, the site of a famous battle or event, basically something I had driven by many times but never knew.

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Arets designed his detour as a critique of modern efficiency, but perhaps his detour represents some larger project that we can harness to better relate speed and history. In turn, one imagines that the detour becomes an aspect of a historical project.

“Can we preserve a traffic jam?” After I spoke at Postopolis LA! on experimental forms of history, BLDG BLOG’s Geoff Manaugh asked me this question. The question was meant genuinely, and also as a provocation, testing the limits of the experimental forms of spatial history that I had just discussed.

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Just a few weeks ago, We make money not art, posted a review of the traffic jam created by artist Maider López. López asked a large group of people to drive their cars into a well choreographed  jam within a hilly area of Spain (below). The traffic jam looks suspiciously like the traffic jam (above) that stretched from the Catskills into lower New York State during the Woodstock music festival of 1969. This recent project suggests that — yes — it is now possible to preserve a traffic jam.

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The terraforming device from Star Trek II“The Genesis Device” — is a bomb that completely remakes the surface of a planet into a biological and geological version of the earth. It’s like a nuclear weapon that produces an ecosystem. In the video above we see the genesis device transforming a lost moon into a world akin to the Earth.

Genesis is a fictional tool for making nature, but it’s also a system of historical representation; although this latter aspect of the device is completely unexplored in the Star Trek films. Not only does the genesis device make barren moons into a depopulated biotic version of Earth, the Genesis wave generates specific historical landscapes and historical images of landscape — culled from Western systems of colonization and exploration . Genesis fabricates jungle landscapes, large oceans, and mountain ranges on top of a surface that looks suspiciously like the moon.

Ultimately, Genesis creates the double image of colonization: it remakes an unexplored moon into a landscape that looks like unexplored continents. Genesis is really a system of historical representation that makes the explorative vista (the depopulated, resource-rich landscape) appear as something scientific.

Genesis is critiqued in the scripts of Star Trek II and III, but from an entirely different perspective: For the script writers, Genesis represents the dangers of nature made by human forces. I believe the message of the film-makers suggests that the landscape of earth belongs on earth, not elsewhere (btw, this is also the subtext of the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson). For the writers of Star Trek, the freakishness of genesis lies in its auto-generation of earth-nature — aggressive terraforming without consideration of a planet’s inherent nature.

A post-structuralist or Marxist geographical lens provides a necessary critique to the the above critique. Within critical strands of geography, all nature is a production and a representation; Every tree we encounter is, in some sense, the result of a Genesis Wave: the American Parks Movement, Johnny Appleseed, the Lumber Industry, Suburbanization.

One might argue that from a critical geographical perspective, all nature is a Genesis project.

But if a genesis wave is both a system of historical representation and a representation of reality (versus a scientific fantasy) that only makes its effects (and what it represents) all the more interesting.

The fantasy of Genesis lies in the notion of nature authorship: Can we release the Genesis wave from the literalness and naturalism that underpins a large amount of the sci-fi genre?

What if a genesis wave was less literal and more literary, less a scientific endeavor and more a philosophical and historical one?

What if it we understood this less literal force conceptualized by post-structural geographers or architects with a hankering for critical representations of nature?

What if, like the Genesis device itself, such nature-production was never finished, but an ongoing and unstable process? What landscapes would be generated; what imagery produced? What aesthetic sensations the result?

Postscript

The imagery above and these questions have been on my mind lately: In the past four months I’ve slowly been asking a group of architects, scientists, geographers and urbanists colleagues to consider these possibilities (albeit without the Star Trek referencing!) In a forthcoming issue of AD — “Territory” — something akin to the Genesis Wave will be reconceptualized, reconsidered, made into something far more interesting and perhaps aggressive. The issue proposes a type of terraforming outside the science-fictional and within the nitty gritty of the historical and geographical.

As the issue takes shape and as the above ideas become more formed, I’ll post updates here.

[To be expanded for a forthcoming article]

If a stable, humidity, temperature, dust, and pest controlled environment is the ideal setting for preserving historical material, could we produce the inverse environment? In other words, if late-modern history relies on a type of ecosystem for the preservation and study of historical material, could we produce the anti-ecosystem of historical maintenance?

This anvironment (parallel or anti-environment) would be a space where historical preservation was impossible but that would nonetheless be a stable integrated nature. Like a black hole in a historical universe; the eye of a historical hurricane.

So consider some type of room with incredible levels of humidity, swirling dust, and horrible heat. It would be a place that also happened to represent two of the West’s key enviro-phobias — tropiphobia and aridiphobia. This room would be an orangey green place of sweat and dirt where pieces of paper, building elements, and other artifacts don’t stand a chance of surviving.

Ultimately, such a place forces us to reflect on the stability required for history, and the environments lurking in our future.

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