PRINT December 2003

Tom Vanderbilt


1 Marko Home and Mika Taanila, eds., Futuro: Tomorrow’s House from Yesterday (Desura) Finnish architect Matti Suuronen’s pill-shaped Futuro went from helicopter-delivered fiberglass “after-ski cabin” to icon of the emergent, plastic-as-pornography space age. The “leisure house,” as the promotional literature would have it, was wrapped by Christo, posed in by Warhol, purposed as an Air Force recruitment station in California, and nearly bought en masse by the Soviet Union in a bid for cold-war cultural supremacy. The book, with its enclosed DVD documentary, is an elegiac postcard from an architectural future lost to history.

2 Los Angeles Plays Itself This monumental documentary, directed by Thom Andersen, takes an obvious conceit—“Los Angeles is the most photographed place in the world”—and follows it, with stunning rigor, to its logical conclusion: a picture of the city composed entirely of its pictures. Andersen leaves no reel unspun as he mines fiction for its “documentary revelation,” presenting filming-location histories of places like Bunker Hill, which Hollywood shot when it was a noir flophouse district and, later, when it was a clean corporate simulacrum, and all but ignored in between. Andersen rescues a human glance like Kent MacKenzie’s overlooked 1961 The Exiles from that almost lost time. Do not miss.

3 IESI PA Bethlehem Landfill (Bethlehem, Pennsylvania) I’ve gazed upon the submerged Spiral Jetty, driven a 4x4 to reach Double Negative, and hunted down the Sun Tunnels, but the most ambitious, provocative piece of land art I’ve stood upon recently is this evolving hill—projected altitude, 670 feet above sea level—of municipal solid waste, to which the city of New York adds some 550 tons of garbage a day. The terraced, polyethylene-lined, Caterpillar-crushed landmass is hard by the now-defunct works of Bethlehem Steel, smokestacks elegiacally dormant, the growing mound a symbol of consumption’s triumph over production.

4 Carnivàle Title Sequence (HBO) Los Angeles effects shop A52 has produced the year’s lushest title extravaganza, a Manichaean historical whirligig that takes the mythic surfaces of tarot cards as its departure point for a stereoscopic, inferno-powered plunge down a digitized rabbit hole, where florid landscapes turn into grainy, haunting archival looks at dust-bowl Okies, a fulminating Mussolini, and a demagogic Stalin.

5 The DoD has its own digital battle models (SimNet), and Marines train on Doom. In a curious yet inevitable synthesis, the Army has now transformed its own operations into proprietary video-game entertainment. A fascinating blog here, written by a soldier/game developer from frontline Afghanistan who is gathering data for the simulation, contains observations like, “I think we [should] also think about putting one of those warlord mudbrick compounds in our future releases. That should be a pretty cool map, don’t you think?” Today’s geopolitical quagmire, tomorrow’s first-person shooter.

6 Alastair Reynolds, Chasm City (Ace Books) Crackerjack sci-fi conjuring an extraplanetary future, post–“melding plague,” in which machine-built, domed cities literally absorb the body politic: “When we buried the dead they kept growing, spreading together, fusing with the city’s architecture.” I read this on the terrace of my villa at the almost deserted Biosphere 2, in Oracle, Arizona, the self-contained artificial environment designed as a template for space colonization, and I had to keep wresting myself back to reality amid the eerie desert silence.

7 Second Hand Stories (PBS) Design history, like history itself, is usually told by the winners; the country’s thrift stores, on the other hand, that surplus after-empire of American abundance, are usually filled with losers. Christopher Wilcha and John Freyer, traveling via an ambulance they bought on eBay, reconstruct the histories of objects that may or may not have changed the world: Sid Sackson–designed board games, Herb Alpert records, prototypes of wayward inventions. It’s as if Alan Lomax launched a recovery mission of polyester-age relics.

8 Cai Guo-Qiang Weeks before the artist’s spectacular, if flawed, incendiary display in Central Park, I saw Cai igniting “gunpowder drawings” at the Grucci family’s fireworks compound on Long Island. It was thrilling work, rendering beauty from violent combustion, pairing the most fragile and destructively capricious of media—paper and fire. The scattered, squat concrete buildings of Grucci’s evoked for me nuclear weapons bunkers in the desert West, which seemed fitting, not only because Cai has done work at the Nevada Test Site, but because Grucci in the 1950s helped create pyrotechnic simulations of atomic weapons.

9 “A Civilian Occupation: The Politics of Israeli Architecture” (Storefront for Art and Architecture, New York) In a revelatory show originally censored by the Israeli Association of United Architects, Eyal Weizman and Rafi Segal, using the master plans of Israeli West Bank settlements as well as CIA and other satellite imagery, mapped a terrain of sprawl as subjugation. In mountaintops “captured” by carefully planned settlements, each in view of the other (panopticon-like, as Weizman describes it), and transportation linkages such as elevated superhighways bisecting—and yet avoiding—the Palestianian territories in between and below, Weizman finds an insidious exercise of “sovereignty in three dimensions.”

10 Richard Barnes Usually noted for his architectural photography, Barnes has lately cast his eye on a different architecture, the nineteenth-century art and science of animal skeletal display. He has spent much of the past year rummaging through archives and natural history museums, photographing forgotten, dusty “exploded view” anatomy constructions, tracking down the obscure purveyors (historical and current) of a lost art. Barnes’s photographs, which will be exhibited at San Francisco’s Hosfelt Gallery and Henry Urbach Architecture in New York in February, compellingly capture the strange fetishization and implicit materiality inherent in the aggregate collection of these natural-industrial totems.

New York–based writer Tom Vanderbilt is the author, most recently, of Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic America (Princeton Architectural Press, 2002).