sand (typ.)

... ARCH 389 ... instr. Neyran Turan ... Fall 2016 ... featured in Ground Up Issue 06: Of Process (2017) ...


global climate change has laid bare resource scarcity, 
and territory as land is a fundamental resource,
and resources are no longer static, independent, or exclusive,
and architecture needs land to take shape,

what does architecture have to say about land?

As architecture has yet to evolve intro an extra-terrestrial discipline, convention would hold that the practice is enmeshed in the land (i.e., ground, soil, earth). Mohsen Mostafavi writes, “The work of an architect or a landscape architect is always situational … The drawing of these places refers at once to a condition of typicality as well as uniqueness.”1 While the representation of the site has been privileged to a greater or lesser degree over time, its presence is relentless. In drawing, the discipline of architecture might proclaim its authority as an engine of imagination. What does architecture have to say about the land it sits upon, between, and beneath? Everything. However, the dominant mode of figure-ground is reductive. As Amale Andraos explains, our epoch is anything but static:

…as time is stretched to that of geological transformation, and as seemingly endless flows of information recast our concept of context, there is an urgency to move beyond the stability and certainty offered by oppositions…[and] en-gage in mad alchemy as we rewrite architecture as the art and science of the unknown.2

Land is a particularly fertile material lens for an exploration of an “alchemical” architecture of the Anthropocene. Given the nature of land as unstable vis-à-vis natural disaster, indeterminate with respect to territorial adjustments, and commercially transferrable, architecture today must meet the challenge posed by shifting identities.

Sand is a worthy analog for the general condition of land in the Anthropocene: ubiquitous, liminal, and tertiary. By some accounts, it is the most widely consumed resource in the world after air and water, but unlike those resources it has gone unregulated and unnoticed as an asset worthy of attention. This work challenges a typical (typ.) architectural imagination of sand in the Anthropocene, highlighting the resulting representational deficiencies present in four prevalent perspectives.

First, sand as territory has potent geopolitical implications with respect to the delineation of boundaries. It is routinely apportioned, governed, and transferred as a primary building block of land. But as Keller Easterling writes, “We often believe boundary to be most clearly made in relation to this static turf…Landscape is so often finally not static, but kinetic—the areas of animals, waters, sands, and atmosphere.”3

Coastal sand is a liminal zone of contention that proves difficult to demarcate due to deposition and erosion, but relatively easy to shape and transport via mining and land reclamation. For instance, Singapore has deployed sand as a tool for nation-building over the last 40 years, expanding its land area by 20% via the production of artificial ground.4 This perspective invokes the architectural convention of plan(s) drawn at multiple scales, but in particular calls attention to the shortcomings of the site plan as a device for describing shifting territorial boundaries. While hard-line drawings are efficient and legible in their austerity, sand’s material properties preclude an obedience to the dash-dot-dash of a property boundary.

Secondly, sand operates stratigraphically in tandem with and in isolation from the physical detritus of civilization. Geology and archaeology have already mastered sand in this regard, as the medium to be cut through or brushed off. A literacy in layers breeds appreciation for the prevalence of constructed land in the Anthropocene. As Stephen Graham describes,

Modern humans tend to naturalize the ground…Yet this perspective underplays the importance of the vertical composition of ground. For the terrestrial material of our rapidly urbanizing species is increasingly anything but “natural”: it is the vertical accumulation of manufactured ground.5 

Architecture is familiar with layered assemblies and the section as a descriptive tool, yet practitioners tend to focus their representational efforts on surficial strata, flattening substrate to generic and indeterminate hatch.

The third perspective highlights the “high-volume, low-value” paradox of sand mining, situating the substrate within a larger context of material processing. Worth billions of dollars, the global sand trade has gone largely unregulated, spawning a lucrative black market, shifting mining operations to coastal sites, and depleting many land-based sources.6,7 Still, the resource is widely regarded as cheap and plentiful. To describe this phenomenon, architectural convention would favor the diagram for its attention to process and systems. But the necessarily narrow extent of a given drawing, and the reduction of complexity for the sake of clarity, undermine the power of the parti. Sand’s vast volume, breadth of uses, and multi-scalar character prove to be particularly challenging to image.

Finally, the fourth perspective operates within the more overtly architectural realm of the speculative site-specific proposition. Constructed as a conceit in the lineage of the now-deficient plan, section, and parti, the following project uses perspectival collage to depict the failure of conventional site representations to consider ground in flux.

The CEMEX Lapis Plant in Marina, CA, lies one hundred miles south of San Francisco, one of the last coastal sand mining operations in the U.S. Twelve miles of beach between the mine and the town of Monterey have recently lost four feet per year on average. CEMEX is not required to disclose complete accounts of its productivity, but estimates put the extraction at roughly 200,000 tons of sand a year. Studies show that with natural sediment deposits from the Salinas River, the coastline should be growing at a rate of three feet a year on average.8

Although natural processes of sedimentation have been interrupted, the prevailing logic of plan, section, and parti might lead architects to deduce their own process of depositing particulate matter. The proposed Sand Memorial at Monterey traces a line marking the top of the beach as of 2016. Built of concrete mixed with sand mined from the CEMEX plant at Marina, the monument grows with concrete pours (strata). Assuming current rates of production continue, 170,000 CY of sand yield 680,000 CY of concrete per year— each stratum is 60 feet wide by 5 feet tall and 12 miles in length. By 2054, the ocean will reach the base of the wall. Existing industry is harnessed to return sand that would have been naturally deposited back to the beach, while simultaneously accelerating the same processes of erosion. Ultimately, the memorial itself will render sand mining at Monterey impossible, becoming a datum for the persistence of environmental process and proof that an architecture of stasis is obsolete in the Anthropocene.

1 Mostavi, Mohsen. “The Cartographic Imagination.” In Cartographic Grounds, eds. Charles Waldheim, J. Desimini, 6. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2016. Print.

2 Andraos, Amale. “What Does Climate Change (For Architecture)?” In Climates: Architecture and the Planetary Imaginary, ed. J. Graham, 301. New York: Columbia Books on Architecture and the City, Lars Müller Publishers, 2016. Print.

3 Easterling, Keller. Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and Its Political Masquerades. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005. Print.

4 “Sand, rarer than one thinks.” UNEP, report, Global Environmental Alert Service, 8. 03/2014. Web. Fall 2016. < March_2014.pdf>

5 Graham, Stephen. “City Ground.” Places Journal (Nov. 2016). Web. <www.>

6 “Sand Mining- the ‘high Volume – Low Value’ Paradox.” Aquaknow. 04/11/ 2012. Web. 12/13/2016. <>

7 “Sand, rarer than one thinks.”

8 Schmalz, David. “CEMEX Mine Reflects Human Hunger for Sand.” Monterey County Weekly 14 January 2016. Print.
Copyright © 2018 Jonah Merris