Friday, 23 May 2014

So its a bit of a lazy post on my part this time, but also a slightly unusual one...

Nuclear weapons have become something more than just physical objects. They are metaphors for the end of the world and for humanity's self destructive tendencies. However, whilst their use en masse could cause the end of the world (or the human race, or just civilisation; because there's never been a nuclear war, no one can predict just how much it would mess things up) it's worth remembering that even in the worst case scenario there would be parts of the world pretty much untouched. Whilst Hollywood would have you believe the world would become uniformly uninhabitable, it seems rather unlikely that any of the major nuclear powers would have missiles programmed to fire at Iceland, or Norway, or most of the Southern hemisphere. (There are currently no nuclear powers in the southern hemisphere, thus no countries there present a threat in this scenario, although South Africa is the only country in history to have developed nuclear weapons and then gotten rid of them).

Even within the target countries, the blasts would not be evenly distributed, as the things worth destroying aren't equally spaced out. Again, it's unlikely that anyone is going to want to nuke Cornwall for instance, and because the prevailing wind in the UK tends to be towards the east, it's very likely that the cornish wouldn't receive much radioactive fallout from surrounding areas, raising the rather charming prospect of a post apocalyptic west-country where everyone goes back to farming the land and sunning themselves on the beach.

On the other hand, major cities and military installations would likely be pummelled with multiple, large yield weapons. The yield of a nuclear weapon is a way to quantify its explosive force, and is measured in its equivalence to tons of TNT explosive. To give a sense of scale, the largest non-nuclear bomb currently available in western arsenals, the American MOAB, contains the equivalent of 11 tons of TNT, whilst the bomb that flattened Hiroshima had a yield of 16 kilotons, or 16,000 tons of TNT. The largest nuclear weapon ever tested, the Russian Tsar Bomba, had a yield of around 50 megatons, or 50 MILLION tons of TNT (it could have been up to 100 megatons, but the Russians thought that was probably a bit much). So there's a bit of a sliding scale here - whilst the destruction of Hiroshima was horrific, it was on a par with the damage that could be dealt by hundreds of bombers dropping conventional bombs on a city in a single raid, whilst weapons in the megaton range are completely beyond human experience.

And so, eventually, we arrive at the point of this article. It's something I've always been interested to know; how would my area fare in a nuclear war? Well thanks to this nifty overlay for google maps, you can nuke anywhere in the world with bombs of varying yields. For instance, the nearest likely target to me is the navy headquarters in Northwood, from where the UK's nuclear submarines are commanded. As most warheads these days tend to yield around 0.1 to 1 megatons, a strike on Northwood actually wouldn't cause as much destruction at this distance as I thought. It would shatter windows but leave houses intact and cause burns to exposed flesh equivalent to being splashed with boiling water. Probably a slow painful death instead of an instant one then. Why not try nuking your town at href=""?

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Mid-Century Modern Part 1 - Architecture

This post is the first in what will hopefully be a series, covering a topic that has always fascinated me - the aesthetics of Mid 20th century design, in all its forms. I'm aware that this is a very broad subject so I'll try and stop myself rambling if I can.

I'm going to put a disclaimer in here - this is a purely amateurish appraisal, in that I'm not claiming to have any academic understanding of architecture! Indeed, I would say that my first impression of this style was formed from the neutral perspective of a child, through the lens of cultural touchstones like the James Bond movies. I remember finding sets like the villain's lairs incredibly evocative, appearing futuristic whilst also clearly being a vision of what the past thought the future was going to be. Most importantly, they didn't look like anything I had ever experienced - these were not cosy, familiar spaces to live in, but spaces where your existence seemed rather incidental; clean and spacious, perhaps a little cold, but intriguing. They were spaces you wanted to explore.

The architecture of the 1950's and 60's is the inhuman channeled through the agent of the human; its shapes and materials (hard lines, concrete, steel and glass) are as far removed as possible from the organic materials and forms of traditional construction, and as such it reflects a fundamental contradiction within us. We are imperfect creatures of flesh and blood who make mistakes, but strive to create perfection, for example through mathematics or music or electronics. It seems natural that this process should reach its ultimate distillation in an era defined by polarisation - east vs west, capitalism vs communism, annihilation vs life.

In completely rejecting natural forms and materials, these structures seem to counter-intuitively compliment nature through the fact of their otherness. Take for example the Milwaukee Art Museum pictured below.

As it occupies the crest of a hill the viewer must see it imposed, from any angle, against the sky, where the absence of any other artificial forms starkly highlights its geometric nature. However, whilst at first it seems to dominate the horizon, on second glance its monolithic banks of windows reflect the sky, creating the illusion of transparency and incorporating a simulacrum of the surrounding natural environment.

From my perspective as an amateur photographer, mid-century modern buildings are fascinating subjects. Their profusion of angles and cleanliness of form means that they catch light and shadow in ways that are supremely satisfying to the human eye, as becomes apparent in this shot of the General motors technical centre in Warren, Michigan.

The same applies to this fantastic building, which is no other than the Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield, where I studied. Incidentally, it's the tallest University building in the UK. (The photo is my own).

I've lost track of the amount of photos I've taken of this building - every time I walk past it a new idea pops into my head. As part of the post-war construction boom in UK universities, it could have easily become a cheap and shabby monstrosity, but again its purity of form turns it into something more than the sum of its parts. The very simple pattern of the facade, uninteresting in piecemeal, creates an entirely different effect when seen in totality. (photo credit - wikipedia).

So there you have it. If I've managed to interest you, I hope you do have a deeper look at some buildings from this period, they capture a moment in time very poignantly. Good places to start are the Barbican centre in London, which conveniently has its own tube station, or the Southbank centre on the Thames, both of which boast fascinating architectural flourishes that merit repeat viewing.