Anything to Feel Weightless Again, Again

This essay is one from the archives … it must have been a casualty in the great Strange Harvest meltdown of earlier this year, so I thought I’d post it up again. Originally it was a contribution to the book “Making the Impossible Possible: The Dream of Flying. The Dream of Paradise”

It’s what you might get if you asked a Bond villain to design you a CenterParks: A Tropical Island Resort built in the giant hanger of CargoLifter – the ill-fated German airship of the 1990s. A bright, fake landscape trapped under the hangers’ shell like a snow dome without snow.

Actually, even a Bond villain might struggle to create something quite so strange. It is a phenomenon rather than a design, a history not a process. It’s the kind of place that happens through the unfolding of a story rather than logic.

Higher Than The Sun

The Cargo Lifter and the Tropical Island Resort might be a love story between two very different characters across the lines of genre, and in spite of the prejudice of function. A Montague CargoLifter to a Capulet Tropical Island.

What strange magnetism draws them together? Why would the flaws of one attract the other so strongly?

Perhaps, deep down in each project lurks the same kind of feeling – a shared romantic desire for escape. CargoLifter, before its collapse, promised escape from geography – a way of moving things around the world cheaply and efficiently. The Tropical Island promises escape from post-industrial Germany to a fantasy destination.

The two incarnations share one un-ignorable element: the hanger. A vast, uninterrupted volume – the largest clear span in the world. It was intended to house the huge airships, though they never materialised. Its scale was enough to convince prospective shareholders to invest. Enough to create a sense of impending event. Enough even to precipitate an unlikely a use as a Tropical Island resort. Enough to charge the erotic coupling of infrastructure and leisure.

The hanger promised so much. Its volume couldn’t remain vacant. Like a vacuum, its emptiness exerted external force, sucking in potential content.

Industrial Light and Magic

Hangers, and other similar industrial structures inherit a complex genealogy. Their recent history has been as muse to various varieties of modern architectural movements: from the Modernism of Le Corbusier, via the techno-utopian vision of Archigram to the corporate precision of Norman Foster. Hangers and their ilk represent an escape through engineering from traditions of architecture. And by escaping traditions of architecture one might slip the ties of social structure, the tedium of bourgeois living, or the unaccountable mess of organic growth.

On the other hand, the sheer volume of space recalls a very different heritage. Its volume is eerie: a deep mystery manufactured by super sized engineering. It’s volume is all-encompassing, like a cathedral. It is the kind of space that surrounds you, envelops you, until you could almost believe in some kind of truth.

In extremis, the CargoLifter/Tropical Island story is an architectural parable. Perhaps because of its un-intended, and accidental genesis has left an un-architectural raw burr. Awkwardness, naivety, and gaucheness lend a sharp edge.

To Dream The Impossible Dream

Perhaps because architecture is in its very nature limited to a specific place, its secret dream is one of escape. Tied to a singular iteration on a patch of the planet, buildings often find themselves fantasising about qualities they will never possess.

Architecture happens at ground level. It is an act of piling components on top of one another. The pile is structurally in compression, pulled towards the centre of the earth by gravity. Its components have all been extracted from the earth’s surface: quarried as stones, ores and so on. Architecture then is simply an act of rearranging of the planets surface. The buildings and cities that surround us are exquisite caves. Even on the observation deck of the tallest building we cannot escape the ground.

As buildings became more sophisticated, they began to feel their way into the sky. Think of medieval cathedrals in the flat fields of Northern France or the tracery of gothic architecture. Buildings began to explore the space between ground and sky. Stone was carved into forms that seemed to reverse gravity, as though drawn upwards.

Up Down Turn Around, Please Don’t Let Me Touch The Ground

The medieval conception of up and down was not simply about abstract notions of high and low. It was rich with meaning from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. Cathedrals express this up/down narrative. They draw your gaze upwards with the spire seeming to be a perspectival vanishing point in the sky. Equally, they compress you further into the ground with their mass: piles of stone exaggerating gravity. They are a promise and a threat, a dramatisation of an epic biblical narrative of verticality.

Gothic architecture explored low and high in elemental terms. Baroque buildings brought a more explicit narrative to this section. Munich’s Asamkirche is an18th century building in a very earthly context: a terrace of commercial buildings. In this tiny plot the church beats up a heavy storm with baroque theatrics. Within its 20 meters height, the building takes us through the (biblical) history of the world. From rocks, geology, bones, death, upwards into architecture, then above onto the ceiling painted into a sky where the kingdom of heaven floats above our heads.

These are architectures that explore myths of verticality and place. They are ways of exploring dimensions beyond the boundaries of the building. They are releases, escapes into other impossible worlds.

Space Oddities

In fact, if you are to believe the sci-fi historical theories of Erich von Daniken – the author of ‘Chariots of the Gods’ – ancient monuments are the abandoned equipment of a race of aliens who visited and populated Earth. Von Daniken re-reads Incan temples as spaceships, the Pyramids as maps of Mars by making huge leaps of faith based upon odd coincidences. If one were to look at cathedrals through his eyes they become stone space ships: Montmartre as a space shuttle. Notre Dame could be some kind of gothic sci fi transformer whose flying buttresses might snap open releasing a floating volume up into a mysterious and mythical sky full of gods, angels and aliens.

Down For You Is Up

Perhaps a more reasonable theory is that cathedrals were a kind of mental rehearsal for the occupation of the air – an exploration of the idea prior to the fact.

The reality remained unknown until the Montgolfier brothers balloon rose above Paris in 1783. To the assembled crowds, it must have seemed as though the rules of nature were changing, as though the ties that bind us to the surface had been cut. The balloon was brightly coloured and decorated as though it was a piece of architecture: its 37,500 cubic foot envelope made of taffeta coated with varnish was designed and made in collaboration with successful wallpaper manufacturer, Jean Baptiste Réveillon.

Flying technology progressed. 1785 saw the first air crossing of the English Channel in a hydrogen balloon with flapping devices to control its flight that made it look like some kind of strange bloated bat.

By 1852, the first lighter-than-air craft with steering and propulsion systems was flying. Designed by Henri Giffard, its steam-powered propeller gave a range of 17 miles at a top speed of 5mph. Simple balloons became ever more engineered. As they did, they became airships.

Air travel can be seen as an architecture that inhabits air space. Transport mechanisms and devices transformed the occupation of space horizontally and vertically. Ships and airplanes altered our relationship with geography. For example, elevators enabled higher buildings and so allowed us to capture airspace and transforming it into realty. The vectors of height and distance took on new meanings, this time as extensions of state, military and industrial interests.

Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

These mechanisms fascinated artists and architects of the early twentieth century. Futurists, Vorticists, Constructivists, Cubists, silent movie stars and many others attempted to comprehend and express the increasing acceleration of the world. Architects looked at the new machines, then back at their buildings. They wanted their buildings to become more like machines: like ocean liners, or streamlined as though they themselves were to speed down train tracks. The result was a new aesthetic and language of construction. However, it could be argued that they failed to engage with the profound effect that movement and acceleration precipitated.
Technology altered geography by compressing distance, by weaving threads of connection between distant places.

The twentieth centuries gaze was held by the hypnotising sight of movement like spectators at football match captivated by the arc of a free kick as the ball heads goal wards. Movement itself became a dream.

X Marks the Spot

But if the modern obsession has been the sensation of movement, earlier interests were in the narrative consequences of movement. Published in 1719, Robinson Crusoe is the first example of a genre that grew out of the context of advancing technologies of travel. Navigation and seafaring technologies allowed European imperial expansion and colonialisation of distant lands. It is within this scenario that the idea of the tropical island becomes significant.

Daniel Defoe’s novel establishes the tropical island as a narrative device. A place where civilised western male is pitted against exotic circumstance. Other examples include Treasure Islands ‘Skeleton Island’ (West Indies), Skull Island in King Kong, (Indian Ocean) or Caprona from the Land that Time Forgot (South Atlantic). It is a narrative that still resonates through Pirates of the Caribbean, Lost and reality TV shows such as Celebrity Love Island.

The Island as a device pulls into sharp focus a set of relationships between man, nature and society. William Goldings ‘Lord of the Flies’ for example, explores how the civilised behaviour of schoolboys descends into savage chaos. The long running BBC Radio programme ‘Desert Island Disks’ asks its guests to name eight pieces of music that they would take with them if they were cast away on an island. The island in both these instances is used as a device that strips culture to an essence.

Narratives of tropical islands often reprise an Edenic myth. Unspoilt, natural landscape of immense beauty and resource are cast as the backdrop to some kind of fall. In other cases the Island serves as test of western civilisation against rude nature where any natives are seen as part of the natural resource. These are fables of imperial empire.

If one were to extrapolate the subtext of these stories – themes of empire, military force, conquest, technology against Island backdrops one might find cultural trajectories that find their ultimate conclusion is the testing of atomic weapons on Pacific atolls. Entire islands were wiped clean of nature by a intense blast of civilisation: nature made unnatural in the flash of an atom bomb, in the beautiful plume of a mushroom cloud and the wind of high tech total destruction. The Tropical Island Resort sees an alternative – and significantly more positive – relationship between industrialised engineering and Island myth.

In stories, Tropical Islands work from the outside in: from the coast into an unknown interior. We are always visitors: alien – out of place, dislocated. The sense of lost-ness dislocates them from real geography and moves them toward imaginary geography. Often the geography and meaning of the Island has to be constructed. In place of empirical longitudes and latitudes we find incomplete treasure maps or mysterious messages washed up on the beach in bottles.

The Taste of Paradise

Modern Tropical Island imagery is almost entirely self-absorbed. Just as Robinson Crusoe was really a story about British culture, Island imagery now is employed as a generic shorthand for ideas of luxury, leisure and entertainment. These are the values and aspirations that the Resort calls upon. Tropical Islands now signify a terrain of leisure – a mixture of high-tech pleasure and primitive vernacular authenticity. Paradise lost has been remodelled and re-gained. Sea, beach and sun are no longer resources but pleasure-providers.

The lengthy 18th and 19th century narratives of Tropical Islands have turned into blip-vert images in commercials or holiday brochures. ‘Ordeal’ as explored in earlier fiction has been replaced by instant, marketable experiences. We see this in event-images such as Bond girl Ursula Andress rising out of the sea. Or in the phenomenon of Tropical beach marriage vows.

Real Tropical islands have become leisure playgrounds that are self regarding, narcissistic, and disengaged from local culture and custom. They are resorts rather than places, dislocated from geography.

Perhaps it is inevitable, given their close relationship to fiction, that Tropical Islands themselves should be manufactured. And that they might occur anywhere. In fact, it is entirely appropriate that one should be built within the infrastructure of a failed engineering project, one whose cultural roots connect to the technological impetus behind European expansionism.

The Stakes are High

The trajectory of the company behind the Tropical Island Resort adds its own interest to the story. Tanjong plc was initially founded as Tanjong Tin Dredging Limited in1926 in England. In 1991 following restructuring, its shares were listed on both the Bursa Malaysia and the London Stock Exchange. The company’s activities include running lotteries in Malaysia and Russia, power generation plants, property investment, and the importation, bottling, sale and distribution of liquid petroleum gas in China. From a company whose roots are intertwined with colonial occupation, its international, diverse portfolio of businesses reveals the changing nature of global investment. Ironically, it is perhaps only here, in the electromagnetic flux of global capital that the qualities of liquidity, of freedom of movement that were imagined by medieval stonemasons, the Montgolfier brothers, or Buster Keaton exist. It is here that up and down can be tracked and viewed in infinite detail, where trajectories and directions are modelled in financial forecasting. It is the point where base material becomes abstract and so liberated from earthly constraint. The language of finance uses imagery such as ‘float’ and ‘crash’ that reveal a subtext of flight.

So High You Can’t Get Over It, So Low You Can’t Get Around it

Equally, architecture and landscapes usurp natural geography by manufacturing place. Architecture is a means of attempting to turn ideas, images or sensations into a deep reality. At it’s most intense, architecture is a narcotic, hallucinogenic mirage of other places, experiences, ideas. It makes so real that they feel completely authentic. Architecture is always about made up places, about the transformation of a naturally occurring place into something different – turning nature into culture.

Just as Modernist designers confused the machines of travel with the fact of travel, it seems just a likely – or unlikely – that the machinery might be conflated with the effect of travel. Perhaps that is what happened to the hanger. It is as though in the absence of real CargoLifters, the destination would have to come to the hanger. As if the imagination of an expectant traveller leaked from departure lounge reverie into a three dimensional reality.

Together in Electric Dreams

Dreams of technology are often dreams about nature. Technology is a means of dialogue with our increasingly complex ecology where the distinctions between natural and artificial are blurring. The Hanger/Island resembles an opaque snow dome: an oversized souvenir of a place that doesn’t exist. The ultimate conclusion of tourism: a product that you can visit.



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