Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Geo-Mimicry: Part 1

the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Disney World (1980)

While Miesian efforts attempted to erase the significance of the earthen origins of architecture, others have sought to re-create geology itself. I don't want to explore topics relating to the speleological or symbolic qualities of stone, but rather attempts to reproduce the form. Thunder Mountain Railroad uses rock to create a southwestern looking landscape in Japan, Paris, Florida or California. While geology is one of the most immovable aspects of place, creating fake rock can transpose a distant landscape into another. Other contemporary efforts often aim at creating visually convincing rock for use in finish surfaces, landscaping, hide-a-keys, scale models, video games, amusement parks, museums, zoos and rock climbing.

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane, Rome (1665-67)

Borromini used classical language in a baroque style to explore geology in conceptually carved spaces. While the baroque space may be grotto-esque, the classical language is decidedly transcending geologic "chaos" in preference of permanence and stability. The orders stand in defiance of natures processes while embracing its aesthetic logics.

Grotta del Buontalenti, Florence, Italy (1583-93)

While the general trend in building form has been towards a higher degree of refinement, mannerism introduced an alternate offshoot which considered the formal degradation which rock can represent. Grotta del Buontalenti is a mannerist approach at creating geology with architecture, It is less concerned with the formal principles of classicism and more concerned with creating the experience of a grotto or cave. Classical ornament is undermined as it is engulfed in amorphous looking stalactites and stalagmites. The interior loses almost any semblance of a building and looks like a cave.

Metro Rock, Everett, MA

The same could be said for more recent rock gyms. I've been going to the Metro Rock climbing gym just outside of Boston for a few years now. As one of the largest rock gyms in the eastern US it is sited on quite the unlikely location. Its hidden inside of a warehouse in a shipping yard. It took me a couple tries to it find on foot before I discovered that they run a shuttle for those of us that take the T. You actually have to drive though a puddle, which I liken to more of a pond, and then through a chain linked fence gauntlet. The wall was designed and engineered by the Rockwerx design firm. Like most climbing wall design firms they offer a range of products from home gyms, to modular units, to fully custom designed walls. While literal mimicry of rock may be a formal perversion to many architects, it has many benefits when it comes to climbing.

this isn't real rock but Rockwerx Rock©

The desire for authenticity in outdoor sports cultures seems to be at odds with the architectural perversion of creating fake natural environments. They are willing to accept a rock gym as a social and training hub for their larger interest of climbing outdoors. However, there is a new generation of climbers who only climbs indoors. The fake rocks they climb are no longer there to mimic the natural but exist for their own sake. This younger crowd brings new values, interests and capabilities to the sport. These newcomers are a sign of the commodification of an experience which was originally rooted in the escapist search for freedom from the system that now adopts it.

these route labels show the wall section which is loosely related to
the difficulty of the climb. the holds really determine the difficulty

There are two primary components of a rock wall which contribute to its overall climbing quality and difficulty. The first is the permanent wall surface itself. The wall will vary pitch and form depending on a range of experience levels that it aims to attract. A beginner wall will be vertical or slightly sloped away from the climber. As the difficulty range increases the wall will slope towards you until it is flat against the ceiling. Gyms tend to have a steeper slope that the typical natual rock wall. The slope allows for a larger dependence on foot coordination and works out finger muscles. There are other qualities such as protrusions and texture which also affect the climbing experience. As rock walls attempt to mimic real rock the surface gets more irregular with opportunistic holds, subtle folds and textures which adds to the variety of solutions to a given route.




The second component to a rock wall are the finger and foot holds. These are placed to create specific routes up the wall. These are temporary and change frequently to create new routes. A wall is studded with T-nuts which allow holds to be placed almost anywhere on a wall. Route setters, people who make the routes, will assign the route a difficulty based on standards which vary from country to country. A climber once told me rock climbing is a puzzle for the body. A good route setter can use holds to control a climber to the point where there is only one solution to the route,or puzzle. Climbing holds are now being made to mimic specific types of rocks and rock features. Metolius has come out with numerous variety, above are a few. Using these will exercise your fingers for the respective rock type. Most people who use these, however, will never actually climb the real thing.

horizontal banding not only mimics real rock but adds sectional
differentiation to amplify the feeling of height

behind the wall, a web of metal scaffolding provides form and structure

The least explored area is the space behind the outward oriented sculptural wall. I always take advantage of a peak through a crack in a rock wall to see the vacant web of metal or wood framework behind. In the space rich environment of a warehouse perhaps there is no need for occupying this space. There is, however, the architectural potential to exploit the relationship between the two spaces.

residence hall, University of Twente, Netherlands

Arons en Gelauff Architecten attempt to integrate a rock wall into the exterior of a residence hall. From an architects perspective, the form is markedly more controlled than that of a rock gyms. However, the quality of climbing is likely to suffer. The most prominent diagonal fold running from the bottom left to top right is strategically placed to generate a gradation of difficulty from left to right. The farther right you climb the higher percentage of the section is slanted wall and the more difficult it can be. And of course the far left is completely vertical to provide the beginner route.

Future uses are likely to be driven by a perceived deficiency of natural landscapes or as a means of ensuring privacy. Perhaps there will be an emerging market in using fake landscape rocks to disguise a person's or business's assets from the peering eyes of satellites.

Now that we have explored architecture that attempts to mimic geology visually, how can architecture and the constructed landscape mimic it ecologically? What we see as static rock is merely a snapshot of a geological river of stone. Without maintenance, Thunder Mountain Railroad would be an exposed and rusting steel frame. Can a building form function as part of a geological and hydrological system while simultaneously offering an experience which educates and imbues understanding? I will explore this and fake rock production in Geo-mimicry: Part 2.

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