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It is hard to imagine a color most beautiful than the color green. It is the color of fertility, of mystery, of life itself (which, unless you are an undersea tubeworm, depends on photosynthesis). Green is also the color of Islam. Today is June 8th and I have a short post about a long and complicated subject. June 8th of the year 632 (common era) was the day that the Prophet Muhammad died in Medina in his wife Aisha’s house. Other principle figures of major world religion died in the distant past, or ascended bodily into heaven, or underwent other mysterious supernatural transformations. Muhammad’s end was not like that. He died at a real date and in a real place and he was buried where he expired—in Aisha’s house next to a mosque. Islam subsequently became a mighty force in the world, and the al-Masjid al-Nabawi mosque in Medina grew into an enormous edifice swallowing up the original house and grave. Muhammad’s final resting place, however is only marked by a somewhat austere green dome (which was built by the Ottoman Turks, many centuries after the time of the Prophet).

Somewhat shamefully, my feelings about Islam fluctuate greatly based on extraneous circumstances, however I have always liked the green dome enormously on aesthetic grounds (indeed it has become a symbol of Medina and of Islam itself). It is a lovely shape and captivating color. The dome’s touching mixture of subdued grandeur and human scale has protected it from those who have wished to replace it with a grander edifice, and from those who wish to replace it with austere nothingness. The Wahhabi version of Islam, which is ascendant in Saudi Arabia right now, inclines towards the latter view, and some Wahhabi religious scholars have called for the razing of the green dome (an act which would infuriate other Islamic sects). The kings of Saudi Arabia love gaudy finery but they detest antiquities (which speak of a more cosmopolitan and permissive Arabia which existed before their absolutism and their oil-soaked personal opulence). Throughout Saudi Arabia, elegant old buildings have vanished to be replaced with monstrous modern travesties. I wonder if the double-edged sword of Wahhabi asceticism/Saudi decadence will claim the green mosque in the same way it has hollowed out the revelations of Muhammad.

In the 1980s NASA challenged architects to invent a way of constructing buildings on the moon or Mars where traditional building materials would not be available.  An Iranian American architect named Nader Khalili came up with a simple & ingenious concept which involved minimum material and time.  Khalili’s idea was to fill long plastic tubes with moon dust or space rock and then build dome-shaped buildings from these sandbags (judiciously braced with metal wires).  Although NASA has not yet used the idea to build any space bases, the architectural and building style which Khalili invented has taken off here on Earth, where it can be used to quickly make highly stable, inexpensive structures.

The style of crafting domes out of plastic bags filled with local earthen material is known as super adobe.  Khalili initially thought that his buildings would be used as temporary structures for refugees or disaster victims who had lost their homes, however, when plaster or cement is added to the buildings they can become surprisingly permanent and elegant. Super adobe architecture results in beehive shaped structures filled with arches, domes, and vaults.  Windows and doors can be created by putting inserts into the bags and then building sandbag arches around them, or arch-shaped holes can be sawed into the finished plastered domes. Superadobe domes can be beautifully finished with tiles, glass shards, or other decoration or they can be smoothly plastered.  Khalil created a finish which he called “reptile” where the domes were covered with softball sized balls of concrete and earth.  Reptile finish prevented cracking by creating paths for the structural stress caused as the building settling and by heating/cooling expansion and contraction.

"Reptile" Finish

Superadobe architecture is best suited for the dry hot southwest, but can be used elsewhere (especially if the builder adds a layer of insulation) and can employ a variety of available fill materials.  If the builder uses earth and gravel to create small domes the buildings are surprisingly resistant to earthquakes, floods, and gunfire.  Additionally earthbag buildings are cheap and easily constructed by unskilled builders.  The fact that wood is not required has made the style a focus of environmentalists and green builders.  I am a huge fan of domes, but they are rarely seen outside of huge expensive buildings like churches, legislative houses, and mansions for rich eccentrics.  This paucity of domes could be corrected with more superadobe architecture. Imagine if you could live in an elegant little superadobe dome house with circular woven carpets and little round hearths!  The organic shape of the small houses makes them blend in perfectly with succulent gardens informal flowers and unkempt fruit trees.  Some builders even go a step farther and cover the entire building with grass and plants. I would like to see more such structures built here on Earth and hopefully someday farther afield.

Two weeks ago I was back at my Alma Mater, the University of Chicago.  As a special treat I got to go on a tour of the nearly finished Mansueto Library book depository, which is being built as an addition to the Regenstein library. The Mansueto depository is housed in a lovely oval dome made of glass, but the real heart of the library is five stories underground, where a huge steel rack holds thousands of uniformly sized metal boxes.  These boxes are indexed in a computer database.  When the depository is finished, these boxes will be filled with books and periodicals of the same size (to create maximum efficiency).  Once a reader requests a book, huge robot cranes mounted on metal rails (in the fashion of trains) will zip to the correct box and route it to an industrial elevator up to the surface world. The Mansueto depository will hold 3.5 million books.

A Cross Section Diagram of the Mansueto Book Repository

The Regenstein library, a huge brutalist limestone building on 57th street, already houses 4.4 million books.  A large part of the library’s charm is the easy- to-browse stacks: if you wish to look up 8th century Byzantine emperors you can find an entire shelf of books about them. Scholars and students appreciate the unexpected discoveries and ideas which spring from such an arrangement (although I spent far too much time in the Regenstein browsing increasingly off-topic books which called out to my fancy). The librarians in charge of the Mansueto project did not wish to sacrifice this aspect of the stacks, so the Mansueto will largely house periodicals and academic journals (which aren’t easy to browse without an index anyway).  Books about related subjects will continue to be grouped together in a fashion visible to library patrons.

The Mansueto Depository takes shape beside the Regenstein Library

My tour group was one of the last groups of people allowed down into the Mansueto depository. Once the staff starts moving books into it, the cranes will be active and the space will become dangerous.  Then only technicians and service professionals will be allowed down into the temperature and humidity controlled space. Before seeing the apparatus, I kind of imagined the library as being like a computer browser: one types in a title and the relevant information magically appears. But the tour revealed how naïve such thinking was.  The robot workings of the huge depository were amazing to behold and their scale was unnerving. Serious and remarkable engineering went in to the building of the complex–which reminded me less of a library and more of the modernized steel foundry which I visited many years ago.  Like that foundry, the underground compound had the unearthly feeling of a place humans aren’t really meant to be in.  The scale of everything was wrong. The shelves were inhumanly large whereas the walkways were too small to be comfortable.  The dry cold air smelled of steel and electronics.  Yellow warning signs were inscribed all around the huge motionless robot librarians and it was easy to imagine them springing to life and going on a crushing rampage.

A Robotic Crane in the Mansueto Depository

Here is a colleague beside the metal shelves to give you a sense of scale

When the Mansueto is full, the Regenstein will be the largest collection of books under the same roof in North America. It may be one of the last edifices of its kind. Digital information is supplanting traditional printed books and magazines everywhere, and I feel a bit as though I am describing the scroll repositories of the library of Alexandria (even if I’m actually describing a state-of-the-art triumph of robotics). I hope the digital revolution does not undo printing and libraries to the extent that has been forecast.  Standing in the beautiful dome and looking out at the gothic campus I felt like I was visiting a future built around books rather than a dreary future without them.

The Gothic Buildings of the University of Chicago Quads seen from the Mansueto reading room

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