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Living in Airspace: Room With a View
Designing a World without Gravity (3)
Gregory Daigle (gdaigle)     Print Article 
Published 2006-01-02 09:34 (KST)   

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Some day architects may design buildings that float in the sky. Prior to that day someone should ask, "Why build them?" Why build any architectural scale structure that levitates off the ground? How will this change cities? Who benefits? And who gets hurt?

Part 2 of this five-part series explored the possibility of modified gravity (modG) devices, personal gravityships and local spaceports. This segment looks at the potential impacts upon architecture and urban rights - plus a small semantic revolution.

Future Architectures

The city in "Metropolis" (1927)
©1927 Fritz Lang
Architects are visionaries. They have often created images of what the fusion of transit and metropolitan architecture might look like in the future. Some of those futures have already come and gone yet those cities of the future have rarely appeared.

Visionary depictions typified by William Robinson Leigh's "Visionary City" (1908), Fritz Lang in his 1927 film "Metropolis", or production designer Vincent Korda's Everytown from the 1936 film "Things to Come" are some of the more notable attempts at visualizing futures that never appeared. Yet their contemporaries are still producing future cityscapes reflected in popular films.

The Star Wars city/planet Coruscant with its personal vehicles flying under arches and through large passageways reminds us directly of Leigh's images from almost a century ago. Landing platforms are precariously cantilevered and entire buildings are poised upon ultra-thin spans. The control of gravity in architecture is implied but not overt.

In the American cartoon series The Jetsons their homes, workplaces, even the corner grocery floated above the ... well, we rarely did see the ground in that show. Entire floating castles and cities have also been portrayed in art and film. The "magic realist" painter Rene Magritte challenged our assumptions and painted a castle of stone on top of a huge oblong mountain floating over a sea.

City-planet of Coruscant in the Star Wars universe
©2005 Lucasfilm
In films such as Star Wars Episode 5's "Cloud City" and in science fiction literature such as James Blish's "Cities in Flight" cities are complete self-contained municipalities with little connection or reference to what lies below them.

More conventionally, the "Freedom Ship" is a plan for an ocean liner city that floats on the world's oceans circumnavigating every three years. Taken as a template for cities-in-the-sky this model for residency, school, work and trade may have merit.

The first airborne municipality may actually be a ship -- or at least a barge. Prior to hurricane Katrina the thirteen hotel-casino barges of the U.S. Gulf Coast had an occupancy of many thousands and was that nation's third-largest casino market. They will expand as they rebuild. Casinos have the capital to invest in novel technology such as modG and employ it in their marketing strategy as an attraction.

Building without a Foundation

Benefits/drawbacks

Benefits and drawbacks for buildings that exist as autonomous structures not permanently affixed to the ground:

Benefits:
1) No land parcel costs

2) Superior view

3) Moor over any terrain

4) Unmatched mobility

5) Impermanent

Drawbacks:
1) Catastrophic failure

2) Costs for mooring services

3) Abrogation of rights (view/light)

4) Accentuates economic divides
Incentives to design flying residences include: no associated land costs, a superior view, having the ultimate "motor" home and the ability to locate it in scenically rugged terrain. This could apply to commercial as well as residential structures though mobility of commercial structures might have unique drawbacks ("Sorry sir. I'm late for the meeting because I did not get the memo that the building had moved!")

More seriously, the ability to dispatch and relocate temporary facilities upon any terrain can aid disaster victims. Autonomous flying structures could benefit aid relief ranging from housing for earthquake and flood victims to mobile units for humanitarian aid workers and surgical teams.

The second part of this series already addressed transportation corridors for the daily commute and delivery of goods in and out of cities -- and this connection between air transit and central cities is not new. The original scheme for zeppelin airships of the 1930's was to be a fleet of airborne commuter ferries. They would fly their route then moor at structures over cities, landing on the ground only when weather or major maintenance was required. The Empire State Building was to have been one of those original mooring stations for zeppelins until tests with smaller dirigibles made it clear the system was not practical. Flying architecture faces the same challenge: exciting vision, but difficult execution.

Gravity-Assisted, Gravity-Ascended

ModG could be utilized to provide a range of gravity augmentations for buildings. They could range from gravity-assist for otherwise conventional buildings to non-tethered flying structures. At the low end of impact in this range a combination of HAFF fields could be used to reinforce conventional buildings against earthquakes and high winds without affecting their architectural aesthetics.

The next step up would be hybrid solutions combining gravityship technology and conventional buildings. In this scenario building cores may be traditional but your vehicle "docks" at your residential balcony. Or in a commercial building your vehicle docks to the exterior becoming an extension of your office. This has the added benefit of solving the parking issue (images of future cities rarely show parking lots). This hybridization may greatly impact a building's aesthetics but less so the engineering.

Cantilever bridge, Guthrie Theater c.2005 Neil Kveberg
©2005 Neil Kveberg
Pushing the edge of the technology further would invoke cantilevered structures and attenuated supports not possible with current building materials alone. Cantilevered designs are available today with existing materials and technologies, but a disproportionately large engineering effort is devoted to making them both possible and safe. With gravity-assisted (think of it as gravity-defying) architecture remarkable arches and spans would be possible. However a high degree of risk exists since the construction materials would not support the structures unaided.

By employing gravity technology to fully float a structure the architects and engineers take a huge risk. Finding liability coverage for such a structure would certainly be a challenge. Services such as electricity, water, sewage, garbage pickup, etc. would either have to be transported to and from the site or the structure would have to occasionally moor/land to be provisioned.

There would also be huge negative economic impacts on land values. If flying structures were legal then why pay for prime real estate? It could lead to plummeting prices in the dense urban canyons of New York and Tokyo.

But before that can happen, what new regulations would have to be enjoined to allow buildings to float over existing cities? Does any city currently possess zoning laws applicable to architectural structures not in contact with the ground?

Your Right to Light and Alight

In 1926 the U.S. Air Commerce Act declared that the "navigable air space" of the U.S. was a public highway, open to all citizens. More recently, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the U.N. stated in its 2003 Multilingual Land Tenure Thesaurus that, "flight over the land would generally not give rise to a trespass, as long as the flying height was reasonable in the context of current wind and weather conditions." So flying over other properties is apparently legal, even for a building. But is a flying structure a building at all?

Despite its size, a motor home is still considered a vehicle, though in a different classification than your family car. Would a flying residence be considered just a different classification of gravityship? If so, must a ship (private property) conform to laws affecting land (real property)?

Two areas of great potential conflict in this arena are Right to Light and Right to View. Right to solar access has been a common topic in urban development circles. No matter where you place it, a structure is going to cast a shadow. In Japanese the "sun-shadow" law guarantees non-commercially zoned residences measured right to sunlight and allows blocking of sunlight only if the builder gains unanimous consent from neighbors.

In many U.S. urban cores a building can not be built taller than code allows unless a transfer of an adjacent building's Transferable Development Rights (TDRs, or, "air rights") can be arranged. This helps preserve the view for commercial properties. For single family residences a right to a view usually does not supersede another owner's property rights. But when conflicts do occur then easements for real (immovable) property provide a legal mechanism for balancing those rights.

What is needed is an easement for mobile property. Call it roaming. It might operate much like the shared mobile agreements between cell phone service providers. Owners willing to shift moorings to achieve desirable outcomes might be given rights to roam more freely. Such nomadic structures could ameliorate long-term conflicts by guaranteeing their transience. Transience might even provide some benefits.

For example, scheduling large structures to moor above major highways would provide shade during early and late commutes, thus reducing glare-caused traffic accidents. Or areas desiring additional sunlight in winter might schedule the presence of structures with reflective exteriors to follow the path of the sun, providing reflected sunlight when needed.

Vertical Classism

Floating dwellings pose two challenges to demographers: increased transience and verticality. Census data and voting registration laws would have to be revised to reflect mobile tracts, as would mail delivery and addresses, school attendance and political representation. New methods of collecting GIS (geographic information system) data would have to be developed for mapping and measuring such dynamic populations.

The dark side of such transient dwellings is their enhanced ability to vertically separate people by economic class. Residential altitude is directly associated with economic level. Over half the deaths due to natural disasters in the world are associated with flooding. People in poverty are more likely to live in low-lying areas subject to flooding. In the U.S. the 9th parish of New Orleans is an example of one impoverished community vulnerable to floods. Relatively few people with middle to upper income levels drowned in the 2004 tsunami floods, with the exception of resort vacationers.

Dystopias in fictional literature and film depict the rich and privileged living above the city, sometimes even above the clouds. Historically, building castles on inaccessible bluffs or hilltops was pragmatic; it provided protection from invaders. The early industrial age practice of building posh estates on hillside summits while the working class labors below was vertical classism. Gravity technology merely offers a means to exercise this classism to a degree never before realized by even the loftiest of penthouse dwellers.

Semantic Revolution: Uplifting or Grave?

Often the most significant influence of a technology is its ability to evolve new ways of thinking. In the English language gravity is a synonym for weightiness, importance, severity, consequence and somberness. Its antonyms include levity, buoyancy, flightiness and light-heartedness.

Gravity is directional, always downward. Gravity fights us in old age eventually and irreversibly pulling us to our grave (same Latin root as gravity). Any physical demonstration that gravity is not constant would be a significant technical revolution. Similarly, a new mental construct that gravity is variable, pliable, even reversible would precede a significant semantic revolution.

During the Renaissance the rediscovery of the technique of perspective drawing changed more than just how art was made. The discovery that every person's point of view is different yet just as valid as another's viewpoint changed social discourse. The resulting enlightenment expanded to other vistas of politics, religion and literature.

In narrative writing perspective establishes a character's viewpoint and challenges the writer to relate that point-of-view to the reader. As a result of the use of perspective writers explore attitude, contexts, relations and relativity. (The phrase "it's all relative" garnered its own small semantic revolution last century after Einstein's theories become part of the public mindset.)

ModG would challenge our vertical assumptions. People with economic trouble are said to be "down on their luck" or having "fallen on hard times." Yet pragmatists are steadied by having their "feet on the ground." Social climbers have "lofty aspirations." Socially privileged are referred to as living the "high life", being in the "upper class" or the "upper crust" and residing in "high society." Elitists are thought to think of themselves as "high and mighty."

These are just some of the ways that Western culture expresses itself vertically. So in addition to changing the physical world, a potentially greater impact of modG is how it might challenge us to think about ourselves.
Gregory Daigle is a consultant in social technologies and e-learning, and a former professor of industrial design.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Gregory Daigle

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