Monthly Archives: October 2013

“Thus we cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space. But what a book would have to be written to decide all these problems! Space calls for action, and before action, the imagination is at work. It mows and ploughs. We should have to speak of the benefits of all these imaginary actions.”

Bachelard, Gaston, (1957 ) Poetics of Space

Metrology: the Science of Measurement, FROM THE FOOT TO THE METRE

imperial units
Following on a discussion in the studio about Units of measurements, I would like to extend a little on the subject.

Firstly about the foot, foot as part of the body and foot as measuring tool. What a great tool. The ‘unit for measuring length equal to 12 inches or 30.48 centimetres’ comes in fifth position in the online Oxford English Dictionary, it is first and foremost a part of our body, one that we use to measure the land, or rather used to use. When we walk the land, we take measure of it, ultimately we experience its extent, how much of it we can cover in one hour, one day, by foot. We position ourselves and relate ourselves to the land. The Australian Aboriginals use both their feet and speech to measure and sing the land, in what we call songlines, told in the eponymous book by Bruce Chatwin, and what they call footprints of the ancestors.
The inch, about a twelfth of a foot, also happens to be about equal to the length of a phalanx. Or is it that the length of a phalanx (or a thumb, as it is known in other languages) happens to be about the twelfth of a foot? It was (is) a measuring unit of a phenomenological nature. One that we can relate to, and that we understand through our very own body.
But perhaps it is no surprise that this measurement standard, one based on walking the land, is called the imperial system.

In 1791, the metre was defined “as being equal to the ten millionth part of one-quarter of the terrestrial meridian“. In 1875 it was institutionalised and internationalised through the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, still in action today, and the Metre Convention treaty, signed by 17 countries.
Although one is inclined to think of this definition of the metre as purely geometrical, requiring the most precise of astronomical observations to tell us the circumference of the earth, the metre was not in fact to be defined by looking at the stars. The ten millionth part of one-quarter of the terrestrial meridian was measured by walking the Earth. Between 1791 and 1799, two men, Pierre-François MECHAIN and Jean-Baptiste DELAMBRE, walked the meridian from Dunkirk to Barcelona, and arc of 9 and a half degree, in order to complete the triangulation.
The ten millionth of the quarter of the meridian was then made into a prototype of platinum-iridium, to be recently replaced by “the distance travelled by light in vacuum in 1/299 792 458 of a second”, admittedly a lot more difficult to remember that the length of my foot.
But ultimately, it all started with a walk from Dunkirk to Barcelona.

jules verne aventure de 3 russes et 3 anglais dans l afrique australe
(illustration from Jules Verne: Aventures de trois russes et trois anglais en afrique australe, 1876)

some great information about the metric system here and about the ‘metre adventure’ here

Neil Deinari at the University of Greenwich
Open International Lecture
at the Norbert Singer Lecture Theatre / M055
Mansion Site, Avery Hill Campus
Tuesday 29th October, 6PM


Realism in cinema and literature was overcome in the 1960’s and 70’s by new forms of abstraction and meta-modernisms, techniques that called into question the conditions that compelled work to be truthful and matter-of-fact. Given the physical and material nature of architecture, it would seem to be nothing but matter of fact, a medium of experiential presence. But with new technologies driving everyday life, architecture has drifted into a hazy peripheral background, well out sight in our digitally focused world. At times, architecture has become spectacular enough to capture our attention, but this work seems somehow less real (unbelievable) than ever as more extreme forms and materials come into play. This lecture, using cultural references and the work of NMDA, will ask questions and make claims about the status of the real in our contemporary landscape.

Neil Denari is principal of Neil M. Denari Architects Inc (NMDA), and Professor of Architecture at UCLA. Denari lectures worldwide and has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and UC Berkeley among other schools and was the Director of SCI-Arc from 1997-2002. He is the author of Interrupted Projections (1996), Gyroscopic Horizons (1999), and Facticity, forthcoming in 2013. Neil Denari was the recipient of the Los Angeles AIA Gold Medal in 2011 and was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 2010. In 2009, he was given the California Community Foundation Fellowship from the United States Artists organization and in 2008 he received an Architecture Award from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. In addition to these personal awards, NMDA has been awarded the 2005 and 2007 National American Institute of Architecture Awards, 2005 Progressive Architecture citation, and the 2011 American Institute of Architecture/Los Angeles Honor Awards in both the built and unbuilt categories.

andree balloon 03

These amazing photographs, from Andrée’s Balloon expedition into the Arctic in 1897 are on show at the Louisiana museum in Denmark, as part of the ARCTIC exhibition.

here is an extract of the museum’s text, which shows human pursuit and blind faith in the sciences:

Andrée was educated in the technical sciences and was thus a fierce rationalist; he believed in progress and industry and was an ardent enthusiast and unshakeable optimist. But when he finally took off from Svalbard, on his second attempt, he probably knew in his heart that it would never succeed. Heartbreakingly, he had become a prisoner of his own role – giving up in front of a public that had witnessed his commitment to his philosophy of the future was not an option. Posterity has debated what really mattered most to Andrée: reaching the North Pole or demonstrating the possibilities of a particular technology – balloon travel. And the consensus inclines to the latter.

andree balloon 05 andree balloon 09

August 3: Andrée writes: We photographed the story of the development of our forks. It is so warm that we do the pulling without any coats on. The ice is horrible. Clothes-drying on large scale. I made a fork for Frænkel. The forks photographed.


More about the exhibition here and here on the beautiful exhibition website/webbook

Zhan Wang

(image by Zhan Wang at the AA Dip 6)

We had the pleasure of having Kate Davies, Ed Wall and Simon Withers as critics this week.

Kate Davies runs the Dip 6 at the AA, also known as the Unknown Fields Division with Liam Young, which is, in their own words:
a nomadic design studio that ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies. Join the Division as each year we navigate a different global cross section and map the complex and contradictory realities of the present as a site of strange and extraordinary futures.
more info about the Division and students work here at the Unknown Fields Division

Kate also runs the Diploma Unit 23 with Bob Sheil and Emmanuel Vercruysse at the Bartlett and some of their inspirations can be found here at

Ed Wall is head of the Landscape Department at the University of Greenwcih and you can follow the new blog of the department here at, where I found this beautiful quote by Landscape architect Gilles Clément:

We will protect a forest for the future produced by time and the vagaries of history;
a natural process has been transformed into a vertical symbol,
coveted and unreachable, yet the focus of our attention and astonishment;
a fragment of nature left to itself in the heart of the city, and island.

Simon Withers runs Unit 15 with Nic Clear and Mike Aling at the University of Greenwich, you can follow their inspirations, preocupations and references here 


water yellow river china

Edward Burtynsky’s latest series of photographs is currently exhibited at the Flowers Gallery in London. The series is about Water around the globe, how we shape it and how it shapes us.

pivot irrigation arizona

Burtynsky’s photographs of Irrigation systems in Texas look (un)surprisingly like James Corner’s drawings in ‘Taking Measures across the American Landscape’, which we’ve discussed in the Unit. Drawings on landscape with water.

(image James Corner, landscape architect, Taking Measures across the American Landscape)

Photographer Edward Burtynsky has published a series of books on his landscape photographs

the exhibition at the Flowers Gallery on Cork Street, London is on until the 23rd of November


Ptolemy’s maps apparently date from circa 150 AC. Acting like an explorer, Ptolemy was well aware of the limited knowledge he had of the world at the time but still strived to represent it in his work ‘Georgaphia’.
Though the maps themselves were lost, they were redrawn in the 15th century with references he had written, using what looked like coordinates.

more images here