American Lines is an ongoing series of writings and visualizations suggesting data-driven drawing as a tool for situating objects of design and highlighting spatial analysis as a creative practice.
The series has been published in the international journal of architecture and design d3:dialog and has been on exhibition at the Julie Collins Smith Museum in the United States and the School of Art, Architecture, & Design at the Universidad de Monterrey in Mexico.
Prints and posters available via RedBubble.
Plate 01: Constructing Context
Mapping Thomas Jefferson’s enlightenment reconstruction of the Christian New Testament.
Plate 02: Foul Ground, Fair Territory
Overlaying the perimeters of all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums.
Plate 03 Proxy Pawns (beta)
Fischer (USA) vs. Spassky (USSR) - 1972 World Chess Championship (Game 01).
In early February 1896, the city of El Paso, Texas was electrified with rumors surrounding the uncertain location of the forthcoming world heavyweight championship fight between champ Peter Maher, an Irishman, and Australian challenger Bob Fitzsimmons. Originally to be staged in Dallas, the fight itself had become a fugitive under constant surveillance by local authorities¹. Just weeks before the event, prize fighting had been outlawed by the Texas legislature, and was already illegal in the adjacent territory of New Mexico and south of the Rio Grande². For boxing promoter Dan Stewart, El Paso presented many opportunities at the convergence of these poorly policed jurisdictions.
Early on February 20th, eight coaches of unknowing spectators left down the Southern Pacific Road and eventually stopped at Langtry, Texas – a tiny hamlet near the Mexican Border in which Judge Roy Bean was the only man in charge. He was no judge, or even a lawyer, but only a rural justice of the peace. Yet he held court in the Jersey Lilly – a rickety saloon, market, billiard hall, and courtroom, from whence he dispensed beer and the law. Having no jail, all offenses were conveniently payable by fine³.
Bean was in complete control of the locality and had been Stewart’s man all along. When the saloon could squeeze no more profit from the party, Bean finally led them through 500 yards of prairie brush to a precipitous bluff overlooking the Rio Grande, and down to a 75 foot pontoon bridge crossing a part of the river.
The party approached a canvas enclosure 200ft in diameter, where Bat Masterson checked their tickets at the entrance of the impromptu arena.
There are differing accounts of whether the sandbar was actually in Mexico or in the middle of the river, but no matter – the Mexican authorities were out of reach and the Texas Rangers would have no jurisdiction. At 4:25 in the afternoon, as the Rangers watched helplessly from atop the bluff, the fight commenced. It lasted only 95 seconds⁴.
Roy Bean, as crooked as he was clever, had a shrewd understanding of the nuances of his local landscape. In this case, the success of his latest profiteering scheme depended not on its promotion, or timing, or the weather conditions, or even the prize fighters themselves, but on the strategic location of the event itself. Even more important than the design and construction of the temporary edifice erected to stage the spectacle, was the classification of the ground on which it stood. For designers, this ground is called the site.
All built projects have a physical location. As objects of urban planning and design, sites are often reduced to just that – a commodified matrix of metes and bounds. Although seemingly isolated on the ubiquitous surveyor’s plat, an emerging body of work on site theory has made clear the notion that individual sites are influenced by and effect change in, natural and manmade systems that reach far beyond the parcel’s perimeter⁵.
For the design team, sites are often received in the development process and arrive bearing a thicket of existing economic, political, and cultural constructs aggregating an operational context rarely well conceived. Recognized or not, these systems will affect the performance of the design team’s intervention, and their possible representations are potentially significant in the library of evidence used to make design decisions.
Evolving over time and operating at multiple scales, sites are both provisional and multivalent – and therefore poorly conceived through traditional forms of representation championed in professional architectural practice.
In this paradigm, the architect’s primary tool for dissecting complex problems – drawing – is often sequestered in the design phase, subsequent to actions already taken based on preconceptions of a particular site. Presented here, American Lines is an ongoing series of plates designed to highlight the value of data driven drawing as a tool for site engagement early in the design process, and to suggest spatial analysis as a creative practice.
The project casts a wide definition of site, and each plate takes as its subject, a particular complex system specific to the American landscape. The delineation of these subjects aims to offer lessons for designers in terms of design process, but also to reveal cultural values embedded in the structure of a particular system, place, or even text. The project posits drawing as tool by which designers may decode the tangled patterns of a locale or system in which they are to intervene and bring selected identities into focus. Rooted in the author's experience as a geospatial analyst supporting first responders in urban environments, these works are an exercise in the enhancement of situational awareness - for designers.
Represented at the center of Plate 01 is a matrix - Thomas Jefferson’s enlightenment reconstruction of the Christian New Testament known as the Jefferson Bible. While sitting as third President of the United States, Jefferson embarked on a staggering project of biblical revisionism. Though he believed Jesus of Nazareth to be a great moral teacher, he noted that Jesus wrote nothing himself, and argued that his message had been clouded over the centuries by charlatans and opportunists who concocted notions of divinity and the suspension of the laws of nature for their own immediate purposes.
To distill a factual account of Jesus’ ethical message unburdened by miracles and supernatural events, Thomas Jefferson took a razor blade to the New Testament. In multiple versions executed over three decades, he extracted relevant passages from the four evangelists and pasted them onto 46 octavo pages comprising a single, chronological volume⁶ - a project kept secret until his death.
The final version entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was eventually published by the U.S. Government Printing Office and issued to freshmen members of both houses of Congress from 1904 to 1957⁷.
Represented here, the scope of Jefferson’s effort is not unlike the making of architecture - a new edifice created entirely through a reconfiguration and repurposing of the material elements of its context.
But Jefferson’s new edifice also highlights the constructed nature of context by casting the most revered foundational books of canonical scripture - common justifications for a multitude of political positions - as fallible and fair targets for reinterpretation. The designed object was meant to construct a new context, or site, more receptive to Mr. Jefferson’s political agenda.
FOUL GROUND, FAIR TERRITORY
Nearly every major American city has one: just under three acres of manicured lawn, a singular large cleared site amongst the dense grain of tiny urban lots, prime real estate that is neither public park nor post-industrial development opportunity, a volume hollowed out of the city fabric that remains well lit on summer nights. Surrounded by the ebb and flow of capitalism’s creative destruction, this urban void has been preserved for the playing of baseball.
After surviving 19th Century ordinances prohibiting its play in the public square⁸, the game now occupies significant sites in 30 American cities. Though the playing surface is always determined from the resultant summation of fair territory and foul ground, not one of these stadiums bears a playing field of identical dimension.
Unlike any other major professional American sport, the game of Major League Baseball is played over a network of spatially inconsistent fields. Overlaid on Plate 02, these diverse spaces aggregate a singular landscape.
For designers, this aggregation highlights a simultaneity inherent in the nature of sites – those necessary parcels of space that provide ground for design action. At times, sites reveal themselves to accrue over time, bearing many identities at once, accommodating countless natural and manmade systems at once, yet retaining the structure of a single place. In a similar way, the singular story of any Major League Baseball team accrues over time in a variety of political, environmental, and economic contexts by players that face a consistent set of regulations overlaid on a physical landscape that changes dimension from night to night.
With the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of design practice, and the growing number of environmental data sets available to designers, exercises in the vein of those presented here are poised to become more common. Like Roy Bean’s fugitive prize fight, architecture lies at the intersection of ecology, culture, policy, technology, and the market.
Understanding these systems is critical to the intentional orchestration of the effects of design intervention at varying spatial and temporal distances from a project site. By liberating drawing from the brackets of the design phase and fully engaging the practice of data-driven, spatial analysis, designers may find new tools with which to solve complex problems and create new compositional possibilities.
1: “Fights Postponed,” New York Times 14 February 1896, p.6.
2: “Prizefighters Uncertain,” New York Times 7 February 1896, p.6.
3: Lloyd, Everett. Law West of the Pecos The Naylor Company: San Antonio, 1967. p71-72
4: “Fitzsimmons is Champion” New York Times 22 February. 1896, p.7.
5: For example, see: Carol J. Burns and Andrea Kahn (ed.) Site Matters; Design Concepts, Histories, and Strategies. Routledge., New York, NY. 2005.
7: Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson’s “Bible”: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, compiled with introduction by Judd W. Patton (Grove City: American Book Distributors, 1996), p. iii, “Introduction.
8: “An Outdoor Nuisance”; New York Times; 5 August. 1889.
Update: Proxy Pawns - (interactive beta)
Currently under development, Plate 03 is a visualization of the 1972 World Chess Championship match between Boris Spassky (USSR) and Robert Fischer (USA). The below (cpu intensive) visualizations are made with Processing.
Though the exercise is in its infancy and aims to eventually visualize and explore all 21 games of this historic match, issues of process, pattern, and space have already begun to emerge alongside front-page Cold War politics. Nuances in symbology allow dramatically different identities to emerge from the same system when the moves are encoded by the type of chess piece moved or by the player moving the chess piece.
NOTE: Processing sketches linked above render best in Safari and Firefox. Currently working on a fix for poor Retina support in Chrome.
From current readings:
“But man is a frivolous and incongruous creature, and perhaps, like a chess player, loves the process of the game, not the end of it. And who knows (there is no saying with certainty), perhaps the only goal on earth to which mankind is striving lies in this incessant process of attaining, in other words, in life itself, and not in the thing to be attained, which must always be expressed as a formula, as positive as twice two makes four, and such positiveness is not life, gentlemen, but is the beginning of death.”
Notes from Underground, 1864
Part 1, Chapter 9
“Genius in chess is a magical fusion of logic and art – an innate recognition of pattern, an instinct for space, a talent for order and harmony, all mixed with creativity to fashion surprising and hitherto new formations.”
David Edmunds and John Eidinow
Bobby Fischer Goes to War, 2005