Infinite square feet

I’m thinking of examples of the kind of architecture that’s been showing up, primarily in video games of the last couple decades, typified by cyclopean underground facilities of steel and concrete.

The famous “Welcome to Black Mesa” sequence in Half-Life introduces the facility as an endless labyrinth of impossible, windowless spaces, so twisting and massive that no person could understand the whole thing. It’s made of enormous edifices of poured concrete slabs, bottomless pits, vaulted hangars, towering silos traced by catwalks. An interior space of arbitrary size, nearly endless, such that no single feature seems to be the thing it was built to contain.

Even the lab where Freeman works is hinted as only one of many labs of equal or greater importance, just as we’re given to understand that an Ph.D. is Theoretical Physics from MIT is just barely enough qualification to work there. Gordon’s nobody special, and certainly not impressive. What could be impressive in a place like this? The builders of Black Mesa had infinite resources, somehow infinite time as well.

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Who built this place. Where are the blueprints? Who ran the electrical wires; who worked out the ventilation? These aren’t questions worth asking, because the whole architecture is impossible. It’s an engineer’s purgatory dream, with Freeman lost and wandering not through measureless caverns, but a well-ordered madness of unending corridors and enormous rooms with blinking lights, safety placards, janitorial equipment. He travels a mile into the complex, then at least as far to get out, and not by the same route. Not likely are those the only two paths, either, which asks the question of how many other distinct ways there are in and out. How many other nuclear missiles are secreted there, how many other reactors, accelerators, train systems winding through the bedrock?

Infinity is implied through architecture. I’ll give Valve credit for drawing a modern aesthetic out of the same impulse that makes Piranesi’s 200-year old Imaginary Prisons sketches so uncanny. I’m not sure those game developers were the first to do it, but they’re the ones I know about.

As for the humanities, there’s Borges’ Library of Babel, but that place, (though mathematical) is fundamentally unscientific, un-engineered, un-bureaucratic. It’s gnostic. A soul can exist there, whereas the only thing inside Black Mesa’s bones is rebar.

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If Half-Life is the first, Portal and Portal 2 take it even further. The Aperature Science Enrichment Center lacks even the conceit of being designed for human ergonomics: it exists only to test humans (and robots) with puzzles, thus a room may be of any size and configuration. One gets the sense that GlaDOS has occupied her long solitude by designing an entire hell—and hell’s back stage areas—to which she is constantly making additions at a scale which is unimpressive to an electronic mind and inconceivable to a human one.

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I said I was thinking of examples of this idea of an infinite underground facility, so here are the others I’ve got: Hugh Howey’s Silo series taps into the same feeling, with its conceit of living your entire life inside an underground tube of steel and concrete and stairways and bulkheads. So does Playdead’s recent game Inside, which takes place in a cryptic subterranean research complex, as well as a sort of sunken, Atlantean version of same.

The true face of the earth

The airplane has unveiled for us the true face of the earth. For centuries, highways had been deceiving us. We were like that queen who determined to move among her subjects so that she might learn for herself whether or not they rejoiced in her reign. Her courtiers took advantage of her innocence to garland the road she traveled and set dancers in her path. Led forward on their halter, she saw nothing of her kingdom and could not know that over the countryside the famished were cursing her.

Even so have we been making our way along the winding roads. Roads avoid barren lands, the rocks, and the sands. They shape themselves to man’s needs and run from stream to stream. They lead the farmer from his barns to his wheatfields, receive at the thresholds of stables the sleepy cattle and pour them forth at dawn into meadows of alfalfa. They join village to village, for between villages marriages are made.

And even when a road hazards its way over the desert, you will see it make a thousand détours to take its pleasure at the oases. Thus, led astray by the divagations of roads, as by other indulgent fictions, having in the course of our travels skirted so many well-watered lands, so many orchards, so many meadows, we have from the beginning of time embellished the picture of our prison. We have elected to believe that our planet was merciful and fruitful.

But a cruel light has blazed, and our sight has been sharpened. The plane has taught us to travel as the crow flies. Scarcely have we taken off when we abandon these winding highways that slope down to watering troughs and stables or run away to towns dreaming in the shade of their trees. Freed henceforth from this happy servitude, delivered from the need of fountains, we set our course for distance destinations. And then, only, from the height of our rectilinear trajectories, do we discover the essential foundation, the fundament of rock and sand and salt in which here and there and from time to time life like a little moss in the crevices of ruins has risked its precarious existence.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Suicide

I once knew a young suicide. I cannot remember what disappointment in live it was which induced him to send a bullet carefully into his heart. I have no notion what literary temptation he had succumbed to when he drew on a pair of white gloves before the shot. But I remember having felt, on learning of this sorry show, an impression not of nobility but of lack of dignity. So! Behind that attractive face, beneath that skull which should have been a treasure chest, there had been nothing, nothing at all.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Fashion

When cuffs disappeared from men’s trousers, fashion designers gave interviews explaining that the cuff was archaic and ill-suited to contemporary living. It collected dust, contributed nothing. When the trouser cuff returned, did it collect less dust and begin at last to make a contribution? Probably no fashion designer would argue the point; but the question never came up. Designers got rid of the cuff because there aren’t many options for making trousers different. They restored it for the same reason.

— Ralph Caplan

Artificiality

“It’s a kind of heresy to say so, but I think our race has made forms more beautiful than what was here before us. Sometimes god’s handiwork is crude. There is no more ugly thing than a lobster. There’s not much pretty about a caribou. It has an ungainly walk and its touchhole voids droppings when it strains in harness. Was there a straight line on earth before we drew one?”

— Marcel Theroux, Far North

In a book that’s easy to compare to Cormac McCarthy, this may be the most stylistically comparable line I happened to note down.

Design, a concise definition

Design is the intentional solution to a problem within a set of constraints.

— Mike Monteiro

Clipped because it’s a slightly more succinct formulation of the statement I’ve been trying to settle on for years. It’s useful to have good definitions chambered; I’ll use Tolstoy’s for art, and Mike Monteiro’s for design.

He’s is one of the few people who write about design and it makes horse sense. This article (uh-oh, listicle), which is the source of the quote, shares a lot of overlap with his book Design is a Job. I see that he has another, and I’ll read it soon.

Theory and Experience

A deep, intuitive appreciation of the inherent cussedness of materials and structures is one of the most valuable accomplishments an engineer can have. No purely intellectual quality is really a substitute for this. Bridges designed upon the best ‘modern’ theories by Polytechniciens like Navier sometimes fell down. As far as I know, none of the hundreds of bridges and other engineering works which Telford built in the course of his long professional life ever gave serious trouble. Thus, during the period when French structural theory was outstanding, a great proportion of the railways and bridges on the Continent were being built by gritty and taciturn English and Scottish engineers who had little respect for the calculus.

— J.E. Gordon, Structures