Unrealized Architecture and the Skyline of Tomorrow

Speercapitol A city skyline captures the lives of millions on the back of a postcard. In the past, our structures symbolized, perhaps, an attempt to reach towards the heavens.  Today, skyscrapers remind us of the massive egos of their builders. 

The world's greatest buildings are instantly recognizable and so the development of a memorable skyline puts one's city on the world stage.  But, just as a skyline shows us what a civilization has accomplished, so its unrealized architecture shows us an ideological vision unfettered by reality.

The design of imaginary and fantastical structures is probably where every architect begins. They doodle and explore the possibilities of imagination.  Over time the designer accepts constraints: economics, safety, usability, and the laws of physics.  While a modern building's steel and glass are immensly flexible, they are not unbounded.  A real architect combines vision with craft and the skill of building real things.  Then, an architect learns to express his vision in terms of what people are willing to pay to build.  Perhaps after achieving professional success, the desire to be fantastical may again rear its head.

While the World Trade Center's twin towers in New York City were 1368 feet in height, Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned a truly monstrous structure. To be called The Illinois, it was a mile-high skyscraper.  By design it would reach well above Chicago's clouds some 5280 feet into the air.  Completely feasible structurally, Wright envisioned 100,000 people working within the Illinois's 528 stories of aluminum, glass and steel.  Ultimately the concept was rejected for the same reason that other supertall structures have not be built: the amount of floorplan that would be needed for elevators quickly crowds out the usable space.  You would have a mile-high building comprised entirely of elevators and elevator support systems.  This problem remains unsolved.  Perhaps in the future someone will build The Illinois.

Totalitarian states with controlled economies offer unique opportunities to meld grandious architectural plans with strict political ideologies.  Perhaps most well known are the plans which Hitler directed Albert Speer to develop for Berlin after Germany's victory in the Second World War. His plans for the victorious capital of new Germania included the demolition of over 80,000 buildings to construct a parkway leading from the Brandenburg Gate to the Volkshalle.  Housing an enormous dome modelled on the Roman Pantheon, it was designed to be 1000 feet high with a diameter of 800 feet. It would house a crowd of 180,000 listeners rapt with the Furher's oratory.  Of course, the Allies had other plans for Germany.

The Soviet Union also sought out massive architecture to showcase its ideology and power as a nation.  The plans for Moscow included The Palace of the Soviets.  To be constructed over a demolished church, this massive complex was designed to house over 20,000 spectators with a pinnacle reaching 1360 feet into the sky.  The tower was to act as a base for a 330 foot statue of Lenin.  Construction was well underway when World War II interfered.  As the war on the Eastern Front took its toll, the building was abandoned and then deconstructed to put its steel to use in bridges and industry.

Today, North Korea is a brutal totalitarian dictatorship and so it is no surprise it has unrealized architecture motivated by its political ideology.  Pyongyang's Ryugyong Hotel sits in a permanent state of incompletion.  Trapped in a purgatory between existence and imagination.  It sits frozen by political hubris, incompetent management of the country's economy, and engineering mayhem.

Despite these fantasies, massive architecture does exist and is often realized.  After a 30 year lull in the race to host the tallest, most magnificent skyscrapers, construction has begun anew.  And, whereas in the 20th century the prestigious towers were found in the United States, today they sprout on Arabian Peninsula and throughout Southeast Asia.  Countries, businessmen, and political leaders vye for status with incredible structures they've asked their builders to realize

Which is more stimulating to the imagination, the unrealized structures of the past or the skyline of tomorrow?

November 8, 2007 in History | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Global Warming circa 10,000 BC

Pleistocene_north_ice_map With the advent of accurate mapping, high-resolution satellite imagery, and expensive beachfront property, we view the Earth's geography as static and unchanging.  Sure, the continents looked very different when the dinosaurs roamed, but that was 100 million years ago.

Today's landscape is a pre-printed game board.  The unchanging surface on which we, our children, and our children's children will live our lives.  When the size of a river delta grows or shrinks, people cry foul.  When a barrier island is ravaged by storm, people cry foul.  When a drought causes productive farmland to become arid, people cry foul.  Inevitably, the Army Corp of Engineers is brought in to make things right.

Driven mainly by human urban and industrial activity, our planet is undergoing a rapid climate change.  The Earth is in transition from a moderate inter-glacial period into something hotter.  Our use of fossil fuels and resultant greenhouse gases heat our planet.  Our cities create localized heat islands of concrete, pavement, and glass.  Even without our influence, climate and geography are never fixed.  A beneficial climate may last for generations, but our Earth never stands still.

Many of us have seen maps of Pangea, the global supercontinent during the dinosaur age.  Although our imaginations can wander it's unknowable surface, it is very abstract to us.  No humans explored its mountains or shores.  No intelligent beings made maps and wondered 'Why is this here?"

The Earth at the end of the last ice age is more real because our ancestors lived it.  Pre-historic humans lived on and around the glaciers.  And, this ice retreated, our ancestors moved in.  What had once been buried by 2 mile thick sheets of ice became fertile farmland and hunting grounds.  As the weight of the ice was lifted, the land underneath rebounded, gaining in altitude.  As the ice melted, the seas rose.  Countless numbers of our ancestors died in catastrophic floods as rising temperatures caused natural ice dams to fail and release massive lakes of meltwater onto the landscape.

If an altered climate changed the world so drastically during recent glacial periods, how will the Earth be changed 2000 years from now.  How long will it take Mother Nature to wash away the impact of our industrial lifestyle?

The real question about global climate change isn't whether our Earth will survive our insults, but whether or not we are capable of living in the world we create.

The last ice age, the Wisconsinan, reached it peak around 18,000 years ago.  By 12,000 years ago, glacial melting was in full effect.  To understand the last ice age relative to human activity, one remembers that modern humans had settled Europe by at least 35,000 years ago.  These were the kind of people that lived in small communities, had calendars, buried their dead, created artwork, cared for their sick, and would hunt in well-coordinated groups.  These people had language, not animal grunts and noises.  These ice age people were no different from us.

The links below offer a selection of ice age geologic features across North America and Europe.  Learn how quickly larger-than-life landscapes can change on the whim of Earth's climate.  Try to imagine trying to survive in a time of such catastrophic change.

Glacial Lake Missoula - The size of Lake Erie and Ontario combined, this glacial lake covered most of Montana's western edge.  It contained over 500 cubic miles of water.  When the dam of glacial ice failed, it released a catastrophic flood that released this entire quantity of water overnight across Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.  This massive torrent carved out Grand Canyon-sized features in the blink of an eye.

Long Island - Over 4 million people live on Long Island.  Did you know that it's geological origins are fairly recent?  In fact, the earliest humans to arrive would have found an uninterrupted plain leading from Connecticut out to the Atlantic where the shoreline was 50 to 70 miles south of its present location.  Long Island Sound didn't even exist.

Coastlines and Sea Levels Around the World - At the height of the last ice age, sea levels were 100 meters (109 yards) lower than they are today.  As the ice age came to a close, the sea began to rise.  Each year of glacial melting released vast quantities of water into the Earth's oceans.  For decades, the sea level rose at least one foot per year.  In areas with gentle sloping land, this meant the sea could move inland by a mile or more in a single year.  And, it would continue to grow, year after year.  Considering man's ties to the sea and his dependence on it for food, it is no surprise that we don't find evidence of pre-historic settlements along the Earth's seashores.  They have long since drowned under the ocean.

Black Sea Deluge - As the Earth's water increasingly became bound up as glacial ice, ocean levels dropped.  The Black Sea connects to the Mediterranean through the Bosporus, a thin silty channel.  With water levels low, the two bodies of water were separated and the Black Sea existed as a smaller, freshwater lake for thousands of years.  A new theory posits that around 7000 years ago, as the ice melted and the Mediterranean rose, it burst through the Bosporus in a sudden rush.  The volume of water at the break would have been greater than 200 times that of Niagara Falls.  Within a year's time over sixty thousand square miles of landscape were under water.

January 22, 2006 in History | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Sodatabs_1Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope famously quipped, "These days there's no such thing as an urban legend. There's just stuff that reality hasn't caught up to yet." He was dead on. It's as if the zeitgeist takes our unrealized fears as a challenge. From babies in the microwave to Kentucky's famous Kitchen Fresh Chicken to soda can tabs for kidney dialysis.

Where does it all lead? Is our collective unconscious compelling someone to tamper with halloween candy?

Urban Legends often arise innocently enough. But, they can be an effective tool for rumormongers to exact revenge or material gain.

Proctor and Gamble was once accused by Amway competitors of being run by devil worshippers who flaunted their satanic religion with a diabolical logo. The logo consisted of an old man's bearded face in the crescent moon, facing thirteen stars, all set within a circle. Some saw 666, the number of the Beast in Revelation (usually identified with Satan by the Christian watchdogs), lurking in the old man's beard and in the arrangement of the stars. Others saw a goat, surely a sign of the devil.
    - The Skeptic's Dictionary, Robert Todd Carroll
Before Google made it possible to quickly check on a rumor, one could forgive the gullibility of its believers. Look out though, some stories stoke our fears so perfectly they unleash our worst behaviour: the herd mentality.

October 21, 2004 in History | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Hidden Treasure of the Dead Sea Scrolls

copperscrollThe discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran is arguably the most significant archeology discovery of the 20th century.

What doesn't get much mention are the Copper Scrolls discovered in a cave some distance from casks containing preserved documents. It seems like this "tantalizing evidence of long lost treasure" would have gained more attention from the pop-science media.

The most recent translation is quite tantalizing.

Religious and political complications have always hindered archeological research in the region. Perhaps academics have shyed away from the copper scrolls because of the difficulties in deciphering the locations described? Even when a location is suspected, getting permission to excavate in those places may be well nigh impossible. Lastly, which aspiring young researcher wants to be labeled with the negative stigma of a "treasure hunter" - a moniker sure to hinder future employment, grants, and credibility.

Perhaps one day we'll get a clearer answer of whether these scrolls represent fact or fiction.

Here is an excerpt from Edmund Wilson's Israel and the Dead Sea Scrolls regarding the Copper Scrolls.

Chapter VI

The Copper Scrolls

In March, 1952, two mysterious scrolls of copper were found, on on top of the other, in one of the Dead Sea caves. They were evidently so brittle with oxidation that it was thought undesirable to try to unroll them. But the characters had been incised so deeply that it was possible, in reverse,to make out the outermost layer. Professor K. G. Kuhn of Gottinggen, having studied them, came to the conclusion that they contained instructions for finding the buried treasure of the Essene monastery. Later on, one of these scrolls was sent to the Manchester College of Science and Technology in the hope that it might be possible to devise some method of opening them. This was managed in 1955-56 by Dr. H. Wright Baker, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who contrived a small circular saw which, cutting between the characters, sliced the scroll into strips that could be laid side by side and read. The second scroll was not sent on, and the pair proved to be two sections of the same document. This was deciphered by Mr. Allegro and turned out to be, indeed, directions for discovering a hidden treasure. These directions were rather crudely written, as if in haste, and it would not have been easy to use a stylus on copper, but it was probably thought safer to leave the message on copper rather than parchment, since the chances of preservation were better. Yet was it really the treasure of the monastery, whose inmates were supposed to have led so austere a life? There was a good deal of money involved, and vessels of gold and silver. These scrolls were found at some distance from fragments of broken jars, which suggests that they might have been deposited separately. Allegro came to believe that the Essenes had nothing to do with these scrolls except, no doubt, to allow them to be hidden in a cave near the monastery, and that the treasure was that of the Temple in Jerusalem, which the priests there had taken the precaution of putting out of the reach of the plundering Roman invaders, just as the Essenes had hidden their library.

... skipping the part that boringly details endless bickering between the academics involved...

In regard to the directions in the copper scrolls, Father Milik adheres firmly to what Allegro calls the "party line", with which other scholars are inclined to disagree: that the treasure is imaginary, and that the scrolls are an attempt to add documentation to an oriental fantasy. He cites a work of "popular literature" written in Egypt in Arabic, The Book of Buried Pearls and Precious Mysteries, which gives directions for locating these and which he says is typical of a genre, but he admits that the author of the Dead Sea directions "has succeeded in creating a strong illusion of the real, thanks to the principles that he has adopted: the elimination of 'historical' details and explanations of the origin of the caches, reduction of the information to the strict minimum of topographical and numerical data." But Milik, like Allegro makes and effort to exactly determine these sites. This is difficult because there are only a few place names - Mount Gerizim, the Vale of Achor - that are recognizable today; about the Tomb of Absalom, the Tomb and Garden of Zadok, and the Valley of Secacah, which is so often mentioned, one can only speculate. The descriptions of the sites may be purposely puzzling, so as to be understood only by initiates. I agree with Allegro that this list is too terse and particularized - in its way, too businesslike - not to indicate genuine treasures. Allegro defends his conviction by reminding us of the three jugs containing five hundred silver coins that were found under the floor of the monastery, and the accusation brought by de Vaux of "eviscerating its soil and walls" refers to Allegro's attempt there to excavate further and find something more - an attempt which, as can easily be understood, very much distressed the archeologist when, on visiting the ruins he had excavated, he discovered that, without his permission, someone else had been tampering with them. Milik tries to insist that the value of the treatise is so enormous as to be incredible, but Allegro replies that we do not know how the talent was then valued. The values assigned in the Old Testament and the later rabbinical literature would indeed give fantastic weights, and if the unjust steward of Matthew was dealing in Old Testament values, "he could have held his own quite comfortable on Wall Street," and the "good and faithful servant" of the same gospel "who speculated so successfully with his five talents would have needed a fair-sized wheelbarrow to bring his master the resultant four hundred weights of silver."

The translations by Allegro and by Milik of the text of the copper scrolls differ considerable from one another, and the former, in a second edition of his work, acknowledges Milik's contribution and defers it to some extent in making revisions of his own. He regrets tha tthe recent controversy should have destroyed a pleasant relationship, which had been based partly on a common enthusiasm for the writings of P. G. Wodehouse. Allegro's self-defense for publishing the text without permission of his colleagues is based on the complaint that I have already noted on the part of several scholars: that de Vaux had taken an unconscionably long time in publishing the other documents. To this the team in Old Jerusalem reply that Allegro, as a member of the team, has violated the ethics of scholarship. He justifies the expedition undertaken on his own initiative on the ground that the official group, since they regarded the treasure as imaginary, were not trying to do anything about it. I was told in Jordanian Jerusalem that the official authorities of Jordan, who had undoubtably given some authorization to Allegro's expedition, had become rather cold, as he reports in his book, when he had failed to find anything of importance - a few coins merely and pieces of pottery.

August 17, 2004 in History | Permalink | Comments (0)

The Ivy League Nudes

nudesEarly 20th century eugenics is a bizarre collision of scientific fact, blatant pseudoscience, racism, authoritarianism, and cruelty. These ideas were criticized at the time, often with the 'slippery slope' argument. Well, society definitely slipped (a la Auschwitz) and the philosophy has become unacceptable today.

"A truly breathtaking missive. What Hersey seemed to be saying was that entire generations of America's ruling class had been unwitting guinea pigs in a vast eugenic experiment run by scientists with a master-race hidden agenda...to confer on some of the most overprivileged people in the world the one status distinction it seemed they'd forever be denied -- victim."
The Ivy League Nudes combine the mystique of the ivory tower, sceret rituals of initiation, the air of celebrity, and a hint of scandalous sexual activity under the pretense "for medical purposes only."

August 17, 2004 in History | Permalink | Comments (0)